The Ups and Downs of Writing Historical Fantasy

Historical fantasy is one of those vague, fluid subgenres that is very hard to categorize. Should it be in the literature section of the bookstore? Or the fantasy section?

I've been pondering this lately because my work in progress is an historical fantasy that takes place in the context of ancient Egyptian culture, religion, and magic. I wonder where my novel will be shelved if (God willing) it gets published. It's heavily historical, but it's also heavily magical and supernatural.

Historical fantasy is such a vague label. Stephanie Dray's novel Lily of the Nile is historical fantasy, and so is Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana. Dray's novel is in the Fiction and Literature section, while Kay's is in the Fantasy and Science Fiction section.

I don't like the broad nature of the Fiction and Literature section of many bookstores (yeah, I'm lookin' at you, B&N). It contains such a broad range of fiction, from classics to historical to contemporary to just about any other kind of fiction--even some fantasy! How on earth do they determine what goes where? Does the publisher tell them where it should be shelved? I should probably learn this before I submit to agents so I know as much about the publishing industry as possible.

I really enjoy writing my historical fantasy novel, wherever it may end up in the store. In some ways it's harder than writing a straight-up historical novel. You have to blend the history and fantasy seamlessly. I'm following the rules of ancient Egyptian heka (magic) and religion as closely as possible. Of course, in order to make a realistic novel I do have to break out on my own and make stuff up. Historical fantasy is difficult to write, but it's so much fun.


  1. I love historical fantasy - Kay is one of my all-time favorite authors!

    Maybe book stores are trying to avoid what the Grammy awards have devolved into: tiny little segments that have little or no real meaning except to a select audience and within a couple of years are irrelevant. I mean, what really IS the dividing line between pop and rock? There are bands who straddle and cross it regularly (the Beatles, for starters). The same kinds of arguments can be made with fiction...

    Or maybe they just don't care.

    They do lots of shelving in multiple places.

  2. Great post and I'm so struggling with this in my submissions process. If I say I'm writing historical fantasy, I get pegged with other Asian fantasies that haven't done well - not because they're Asian OR HF, but because the economy sucks! If I say I'm writing Historical Fiction, I have to do TONS more research and reading to find anyone CLOSE to what I do and how I write because I've never really been into Historical Fiction. I've always been a fan of Kay, Judith Tarr and others. In the meanwhile, I'm supposed to be researching and writing the next book. I'm so tired, most of the time I blog surf now, which isn't good for my career but the whole query process has got me terribly dispirited.

  3. @mfantaliswrites: Good point about over-compartmentalization. It would be easier to find some things, but then again it would increase the likelihood of pigeonholing.

    @Victoria Dixon: I too worry sometimes about my WIP being difficult to sell. Historical fiction can be hard to place and some agents probably don't want to take that risk even if they love your writing, because if they can't sell it they don't make any money either.

    I don't know what your book is like, of course, so I can't compare it to anyone else's work, but if you could give me a very general description of it I might be able to recommend some similar authors. You could read or skim their books and then look up who represented them. That's what I've been doing for myself.