When you read Stephanie Burgis's guest-post below, I think my regular readers will understand immediately why I'm delighted to have her as a guest, and why I think anyone who enjoys my writing will probably love hers as well. I haven't read her newest book Congress of Secrets yet, but I thoroughly enjoyed her previous work Masks and Shadows (see review) and gave it one of my highest accolades: passing the "treadmill test" with flying colors! (Since I read fiction mostly at the gym, the "treadmill test" is, "Did I blow right past my workout target because I was so engrossed in the book?") Although the new book has similar themes and setting to Masks and Shadows, they are independent of each other.
The best thing I ever did for my writing career was to go to grad school. I didn’t get an MFA in Creative Writing, though. Instead, I studied opera history and politics, and the way those two things intertwined.
There are lots of obvious reasons why it’s good for any fiction writer to study history. You get to see the way the world really works (sometimes over and over and over again, in distressing repetition). You get to see the (sometimes unimaginable) ways real people have schemed and fought for power, as well as breathtaking acts of real heroism, generosity and self-sacrifice, too.
But sometimes, you get another bonus, as a fantasy writer. Sometimes, you get magical ideas handed to you.
As I got ready to write this guest blog, I kept thinking back to the first line in the Acknowledgements of Lois McMaster Bujold’s wonderful book The Curse of Chalion (which is set in a fantasy world based on Renaissance Spain): “The author would like to thank Professor William D. Phillips, Jr., for History 3714, the most useful four hundred dollars and ten weeks I ever spent in school.”
In Bujold’s case (if I’m remembering this story right, from an interview I read many years ago!) she took a course on Spanish history just for fun, in mid life, and it sparked a whole new setting for her next few books and also a basic historical setup that she could turn into something astonishingly unique and powerful. (I am a huge Bujold fan in general, but I love her Chalion books best of all!)
Her kingdom of Chalion bears a number of resemblances to Renaissance Spain, just as her fiery young heroine has a lot of overlap with Spain’s own historical Queen Isabella – but Bujold made that world her own with the addition of an all-new, original and convincing religious system that includes five gods taking an active part in history and directly affecting all the characters and their struggles.
…So it started with history, and became something new. That’s a fabulous way of doing it!
But sometimes, it’s just a matter of finding what was already there.
In my own case, I spent my years as a PhD student studying opera and politics in late eighteenth-century Vienna and Eszterháza…which meant, inevitably, that I read a lot about the many different secret societies that were rife in Vienna in that time period. Most famously, Mozart’s The Magic Flute is full of Masonic symbolism – and the provocative chapter title of one academic book I read, when studying Mozart’s operas, was: “Why did the Freemasons Visit Hell?”
Of course, that visit never literally happened. The author of that book was only discussing a rite in which they symbolically visited the underworld.
But as a fantasy reader and writer, of course I immediately thought: What if it wasn’t just symbolic? What would that have been like?
Vienna also happened to have a number of active alchemists working in the late eighteenth century. Some of them, of course, were proto-scientists…but others were fabulously successful showmen who held audiences rapt with their astonishing “supernatural” summonings.
As a lifelong fantasy reader, it didn’t take long for me to wonder: what if those weren’t just fraudulent performances? What if that kind of mysterious, supernatural alchemy actually worked?
And I was at an academic conference at Oxford University (run by the Society for Eighteenth Century Studies) when, just for fun, I attended a talk about Sir Isaac Newton, who had nothing whatsoever to do with my own work. I had attended a lot of talks that day, and I’d listened with more or less interest to lectures on dozens of different aspects of the eighteenth-century world, trying to pick out any details that might be relevant to my PhD thesis, and also daydreaming a little about where I might head out for dinner afterward, until…
…Halfway through that particular talk, I suddenly perked up, stopped daydreaming, and started frantically scribbling notes on my program book, as the speaker discussed Newton’s theories of the aether, the material and the immaterial worlds, and the ethereal medium that (according to that model) hovered in-between the two worlds, just beyond the limits of our vision.
Those theories went on to become the direct basis for the work done by one of my alchemists in Masks and Shadows, when he summons very real and dangerous elementals from the immaterial world into the luxuriant palace of Eszterháza, with bloody results.
My latest novel, Congress of Secrets, is set 35 years later, at the Congress of Vienna in 1814, and it’s a standalone novel without any recurring characters– but the same kinds of alchemy have been going on behind the scenes in Vienna ever since the events of Masks and Shadows. Unfortunately, the head of secret police has figured out his own methods...as my powerful, driven heroine knows only too well.
But she’ll risk anything to get her father back – even resorting to the same dark alchemy that devoured her childhood.
...The same kind that came to me from that one Oxford conference.
It wasn’t what I’d expected to get out of that academic gathering – but when you start studying history, you never know what you’ll find!
In my case, I found two novels full of dark, alchemical magic – and it all came out of looking at dry historical facts and wondering… What if???
Stephanie Burgis grew up in East Lansing, Michigan, spent 2 years in Vienna, and now lives in Wales, surrounded by castles and coffee shops. She is the author of two historical fantasy novels for adults (Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets), a trilogy of MG Regency fantasy novels (the Kat, Incorrigible trilogy), and over 30 short stories in various magazines and anthologies. You can find out more and read excerpts of all of her books at: www.stephanieburgis.com