Not quite an attack, but almost.
It’s scary – feeling like I can’t write. I think it may be the kind of fear that wakes me up from nightmares. It’s a taunting fear, too – it’s like the music buildup in horror films, the kind that goes into a crescendo just to calm again around the next corner, then climb again suddenly when the monster jumps out of the shadows.
It’s a vacant feeling, too. Like something disappeared. My rational, logical mind knows that nothing disappeared, that it’s still there somewhere and that today, for some reason, I just couldn’t reach it.
Instead of writing, I tried researching. And I got very upset about that too, since I couldn’t find the price of paper in the seventeenth century. I’m not sure it matters, not really, especially as I found some cool stuff that might be very useful and that gave me ideas, but still – the thought that there will be something glaringly anachronistic in what I’m writing bothered me so much that I had to take a walk, reading The City & The City by China Mieville, just to take my mind off it.
So here’s the question – I don’t know how many of you write fantasy of any sort, but if you do… How much license do you give yourself? How much creative freedoms do you think you can take with a story that’s clearly based in a different world?
Although I’m taking time off from school – or maybe because of it – I still think a lot about my academic work. Over the last few months, I did more research and reading about obscure and interesting subjects than I dreamed was possible for such a short span of time. I found it immensely satisfying, challenging, and frankly fascinating to read things that I would never have picked up on my own without the structure of research and coursework to guide me.
Now, at Sarah Lawrence, the most important and unique part of the system is conference work. This is basically independent study and research that is done for each course, with the professor supervising the process and helping out when and if needed. I thought I’d give a small taste of what this is like. Below is the handout I gave to our class, as instructed by the professor, towards the end of my writing process of what turned out to be almost twenty pages of essay, end-notes and bibliography:
Elizabeth Barton, The Holy Maid of Kent, and Anne Askew, Protestant Martyr
Political and Religious Importance in Early Reformation England
- Elizabeth Barton – In 1525, Barton began to have visions and make prophecies. She soon joined a nunnery after an impressive public healing in a chapel in Kent, and became renowned in England for her prophecies. She prophesied directly against King Henry VIII, predicting his downfall should he marry Anne Boleyn. Executed on April 20, 1534, for treason.
- What was her political role and what goals did she set out to meet? What political role did she play in her arrest and death? Was she autonomous in her actions or merely being influenced and used by her mentors?
- Quote: A warning from Thomas More: “Good Madam… I shall beseech you to take my good mind in good worth… many folk desire to speak with you… But some hap to be curious and inquisitive of things that little pertain unto their parts; and some might peradventure hap to talk of such things as might peradventure after turn to much harm…”
- Anne Askew – In 1545, after being kicked out of her home by her Catholic husband, Askew traveled to London where she was soon apprehended and examined for her Protestant beliefs. She recorded her examinations – the first in 1545 and the second in 1546 – and her manuscripts were published after her execution on July 16, 1546, by John Bale, a Protestant activist.
- Were her words her own, or were they edited? What was her political and religious significance, before and after her execution? Was she used by others or working as her own free agent?
- Quote: John Bale praises Askew: “Soch a won was she… whose harte the lorde opened by the godlye preachynge of Paule… “
The first fantasy novel I read was the first of the Harry Potter series: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. I was young enough then that my mother was reading it to me, at my request – the book seemed long and daunting to the nine year-old girl that I was. About twelve chapters in, though, I started cheating- I would keep reading after my mom would put the book down and say good night. A few chapters later, I felt guilty and confessed to my mother what I had been doing. She laughed and let me read it on my own from then on. That was the first average length book that I read on my own.
Today, it seems so funny to me, having read series upon series comprising eight-hundred page books. Fantasy novels tend to be long, full of twisting, complicated plots and myriad characters. One of my series even has a section listing the “Dramatis Personae” at the beginning of it, lest the readers should forget who’s who.
Too many people criticize fantasy novels for their themes: idealized past, patriarchal societies, a suspicious appreciation of monarchic or socialist systems of government. The ironic and critical presentation of such systems which is apparent in so many of the books is usually overlooked entirely.
Moreover, there is so little appreciation for the massive amounts of research and imagination that goes into the writers’ work. Fantasy writers create whole worlds from scratch, from political entanglements to the irrigation systems, from magic spells to religions, from the layout of the land to the very flora that grows in it. When they’re not building their worlds, they’re researching ancient warfare, the hundreds of different deities that exist in current and ancient religions, the way actual monarchies functioned once upon a time and much more. And this is just for writers of this type of fantasy – there are so many different types and sub-genres that they’re hard to keep straight, and critics often don’t bother to distinguish them whatsoever.
I’ve held these opinions close to my heart for as long as I’ve been reading fantasy, and I have never had the opportunity to research these phenomena. Why is fantasy so disdained? Why isn’t it appreciated, but rather looked upon as a genre only for children and teenagers and unsophisticated readers? Why are the writers of fantasy not praised for their incredible writing style at least? Why do fantasy novels reach the best-seller lists, but then get beaten down and criticized?
I wish it weren’t the case, that so much of the fantasy genre be treated as sub-par by so many – especially when books that are fun reads but by no means well-written become best-sellers overnight.
Miss Flanders was standing at the window into the room where Marianne was currently strapped into the chair. She looked thoughtfully at the girl, and saw that Marianne had succeeded in this next part of training as well – there were two wooden blocks floating now, one on each side of her.
Miss Flanders returned to the monitors and sat down in front of them, tracking the little lines with her calculating eyes and trying to decipher what the girl was thinking of that was giving her such extraordinary power so as that she managed to move two things simultaneously as she was doing now.
A door opened, and Miss Flanders spoke without turning around to see who it was.
“I think she’s thinking about her family again.” She pondered aloud. The man who had entered made an indistinct noise in his throat and put down the tray he was carrying beside the monitors. He handed one of the mugs on the tray to Miss Flanders and sat down beside her, staring intently at the monitors with her.
“There’s something new there, though. Look, right there, see it? Just once in a while. What could that be?” He said quietly as Miss Flanders took a sip of the drink he had given her. She made a face at it.
“God, that tastes nasty,” She said. “Anyway, yes, I see it. We’ll need to start analyzing that tonight. You want to do it, George? I want to spend some time with her tonight, see what I can get.”
“Sure,” He said, smiling as he saw Miss Flanders pupils widening slightly and taking a sip of his own mug. “It does taste nasty, you’re right.”