Can 'Historical fiction' include magical realism?

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Woollybear

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Historical fiction has intrigued me for decades. I love learning something real and true from the context of the story (like how a shift in cathedral architecture happened, as described in Pillars of the Earth.) Love that stuff.

But writing a strictly historical novel has never appealed to me, because I recognize all the research that would be needed to do any given topic justice.

Over the past few days I've had an idea for a story developing in my mind, based on the immigration experiences of my ancestors. Being a SFF person, a little magic is creeping into the story around the edges. I'm not sure where this idea will go, but it keeps rolling around in the back of my head, like the characters are forming and want to be heard.

My question is twofold: threefold:

1. If magical realism is integrated into a historical immigration (think Ellis-Island-type) story, would such a novel still be historical fiction? Would it be magical realism? Is historical magical realism a 'thing?'

2. When I googled around on magical realism, including here on AW, it seemed that it was more associated with young adult novels rather then adult. Is magical realism more suited to young adult? Is there a market for adult magical realism?

3. I imagine if this story developed that I would be able to query HF agents *or* MR agents, and I'd target based on what the agents represented rather than any particular genre labels per se. Does this sound right?

Thanks for any help. It's appreciated.
 
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Is historical magical realism a 'thing?'

I sure hope so, since that’s what I’m trying to write. :)

Like most sub-genres, it’s squishily defined, so I wouldn’t worry too much about whether what you’re writing “fits”. But it definitely doesn’t only get aimed at YA audiences. My favorite example would be what Ian Tregillis writes — look at his Milkweed trilogy, or his Alchemy Wars trilogy.
 

jennontheisland

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I think to some extent it has to. Anything not fully understood was magic or the work of the gods (until science came along and started explaining things, of course). Humans believed that. For humans to behave reasonably accurately in a historical context, I think they have to have some kind of believe in magic, which makes it "real" to them, and therefore it can also be real to the reader.
 

onesecondglance

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Magic realism is a term that isn't very well-defined. A strictly academic definition would point to writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Haruki Murakami, or Angela Carter - these are largely "real" worlds where occasional magic happens, with no more fanfare or wonder than the weather changing. Strange things occur but are not codified into systems as happens in SF and fantasy, nor explanation by the author. A classic example would be a character in Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude ascending to heaven one afternoon while pegging out the washing. Quite often in these "magic realist" stories, the fabulous elements act as metaphor or euphemism while still being written and assumed to be literal.

Over the years I've seen "magic realism" be applied to all sorts of other books, very often in the YA space, which simply feature magic powers in contemporary settings. I've even seen tv shows like Charmed called magic realism. I can understand how that happens: it's a contemporary set show which features both ordinary teen drama ("realism") alongside magic powers. For me that loses some of the special strangeness of magic realism, but genre labels are words like any others, and words change meaning as they live in language.

Anyway, that might go some way to explaining why your search results for "magical realism" are throwing up unexpected results. It's a very loose term that's shifted a lot. As always, I'd say write the book you want to write first, then work out how you define it afterwards. It may turn out very different than it is in your head right now.
 
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Lakey

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Woollybear, as onesecondglance hints at, the literary term "magic realism" might not be exactly what you have in mind. "Magical" events in literary magical realism are not really intended to be taken literally -- one doesn't have to believe they really happen as described, even within the universe of the book. They are symbolic, allegorical, metaphorical events. What you are describing sounds to me more like historical fantasy, which absolutely is a thing -- think Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, and other stories of that ilk, stories in which the past is as we know it except that magic also exists. This stuff is, I think, generally marketed as a subgenre of fantasy rather than a subgenre of historical fiction. (As a reader of historical fiction and not an especial fan of magic or fantasy, I would be a little miffed if a book purporting to be historical fiction instead presented "history, except there's magic." It's not what I expect to find under the historical fiction banner.)

I think to some extent it has to. Anything not fully understood was magic or the work of the gods (until science came along and started explaining things, of course). Humans believed that. For humans to behave reasonably accurately in a historical context, I think they have to have some kind of believe in magic, which makes it "real" to them, and therefore it can also be real to the reader.

Respectfully I have to disagree with this -- portraying a character's belief in the existence of magic is a very different thing from positing a world in which magic exists. You can show your characters believing in all kinds of things without also requiring your reader to believe them. Consider Mary Renault's Alexander series, or Gore Vidal's Julian -- the characters in these books are extremely pious; they believe in the gods, believe that their worship rituals have real-life effects. But the books do not require the reader to also believe that the ancient pantheon is real, either in the book's world or in ours. For another angle, consider Nicola Griffith's Hild, set in 7th-century Britain. In that book, everyone believes in magic. The main character, Hild, makes her mark on the world as a seer, predicting the future and interpreting omens. And the book makes completely clear that what Hild is doing is part very careful observation, part sharp deduction, and part showmanship -- no actual magic required.

:e2coffee:
 

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This has been interesting, as it appears that perhaps I’ve been mislabelling my own efforts. I guess I’ll go back to calling it “alt-history fantasy” for lack of a better term.
 

Woollybear

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The 'magic' (in my mind at the moment) is of the sort that we actually do experience--dreams that come to pass, and so on.

I'd like to bring in a flavor of recognizable mysticism, like waking from a dream that then comes to pass, (but not that), and the experience of doubt that follows, as well as other people dismissing the occurrence as a coincidence ... and so on. Perhaps you've had this experience (I have a few times.) "There's no need to call a coincidence magic." I agree--But within a story, a relatable experience like this could be included and even become important to how events unfold.

Lakey: Does that still feel like historical fantasy? My general sense of fantasy (as a genre) is that it involves magic that one wields, not magic that one is subjected to, ala Like Water for Chocolate. (As an aside, the idea of figuring labels out after writing has real merit, although I'm trying to pay more mind to 'market' with anything I write outside the SF trilogy because of ... well, you know. It seems prudent to hammer out a few details now. Before I build something that may be doomed to failure. :) )

I'm taking note of all the titles.

I've tried to give rep points but it seems to be hit or miss today.


ETA: AHA! Goodreads is my friend. Yes, perhaps sort of along the lines of Shadow of the Wind--a definite historical piece, also magic, and this one is listed as a 'literary thriller' which muddies things further but at least I'm making headway in the conceptualization department of what has worked well along these lines in the past.

Thanks everyone. I'll try repping again later.
 
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Lakey

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The 'magic' (in my mind at the moment) is of the sort that we actually do experience--dreams that come to pass, and so on.

I'd like to bring in a flavor of recognizable mysticism, like waking from a dream that then comes to pass, (but not that), and the experience of doubt that follows, as well as other people dismissing the occurrence as a coincidence ... and so on. Perhaps you've had this experience (I have a few times.) "There's no need to call a coincidence magic." I agree--But within a story, a relatable experience like this could be included and even become important to how events unfold.

Lakey: Does that still feel like historical fantasy?

Oh goodness, I don't know. I suppose like most other things in writing, it depends upon the execution, and the tone you set with whatever it is you are trying to convey, which is hard for me to judge because it's not the thing you've described above but only something kind of like it.

As I said above, it wouldn't take a story out of the realm of historical fiction (for me) if a character believes that she has prescient dreams. Don't ask me to believe that such things exist, though -- if the story is actually predicated on me believing such things are real within the world of the story, that could very well cross over into fantasy. But it would depend upon how important it is to the story -- is it just a point of characterization, or is it the central premise? Again, are you asking me to believe in the fantastical element, or are you showing me characters who believe in it?

Once again, I am only speaking for myself, not for any genre-wide definition -- but that distinction rings truer to me than:

My general sense of fantasy (as a genre) is that it involves magic that one wields, not magic that one is subjected to, ala Like Water for Chocolate.

...because to me it doesn't matter whether the central character is the enchanter or the enchanted; it matters whether you are positing a world in which magic literally exists. But I haven't read Like Water for Chocolate, nor am I all that widely read in fantasy, so maybe I am not quite grasping the distinction you are making.

And ultimately maybe these lines between marketing characters do become fuzzy on the boundaries, I don't know. Why would I consider, say, 1Q84 magical realism and, say, The Fifth Season fantasy? I could probably make a case for why in several paragraphs, and then someone else could come along and poke entirely legitimate holes in it.

:e2coffee:
 
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angeliz2k

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Personally, I think the difference is what you want the reader to believe and also the nature of the "magic".

If you want the reader to believe that there is actual magic going on, then I would call it fantasy and not file it with the historical fiction. Like Lakey, I would be mildly irritated if I picked up a book marketed as historical fiction that expected me to believe the supernatural things were literally happening.

If you want the reader to believe that the characters believe that actual magic is going on, that's a different story. As others have said, people have had various religious and spiritual beliefs throughout history and have viewed the world through those lenses. It might be a pagan believing in charms or a Christian believing in a miraculous intercession by a saint. That might be how they perceive it, but are you, the writer, asking us to also perceive the events that way?

There's also the nature of the supernatural element(s). Are we talking something spiritual, or are we talking physically impossible things happening? Is it Lincoln in the Bardo, where we peek into life after death? Or, I don't know, the Discovery of Witches books where the MC can move through time? The first isn't fantasy, the second very much is.

To relate the discussion to myself: I have a novella where the MC is returning from war (the Civil War) after losing his arm and isn't quite sure what's real anymore after he meets a strange Yankee on his property and suddenly finds he has two arms again. Magical realism? I would say no, because it's a legitimate reading to say it's all just a figment of his imagination. In another WIP, each of the four narrators is speaking to us from just the other side of death. Magical realism? I would say no. There's nothing fantastical about their deaths or the idea that there might be some kind of consciousness after death.
 

Woollybear

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I think magic is a slippery word. For example: flashes of insight, which are not magical, taken to the extreme can morph into clairvoyance, which is magical.

Like Water For Chocolate has to do with a person tasting emotions in the food someone else prepares. It's an impossible feat, to my way of thinking, and therefore a form of magic, along the lines of scrying--only it scries past emotions. But it's not quite magic, either, no wands or real power to it, and it doesn't feel fantastical as the word is commonly used, at least not to me.

The existence of books--like Lincoln in the Bardo--that do integrate other-reality elements into a 'period piece' leads me to believe that the 'bookshelf' for such books exists and is separate (possibly adjacent) from historical fiction. I like that Goodreads calls that list 'period dramas with a flash of magic' or words to that effect. So, not strictly historical fiction. I imagine the title of the book, again like Lincoln in the Bardo, can manage reader expectations to avoid suggesting it is a strictly historical piece.

Anyway, RoseAnn Wells has a nice post on the distinctions between fantasy and magical realism on Manuscript Wishlist. It's an interesting read. Her comments about the purpose of the magic in MR:

In fantasy, I find that magic is an external resource, that characters use magic as a tool to get a result or change their circumstances. In magical realism, magic or fantastical things often happen as a reaction to the emotional arc of the story, as a counterpoint to the narrative arc, or interwoven into the plot to make it indistinguishable.


...feels on the money to me, and gets back to the idea of whether the magic is 'wielded' or not. She goes further, in that post, to say that the 'magic' in MR does not belong to a group or to an individual but is accessible to all, (probably controlled by none), that it may or may not be always accessible to all (can be spotty), that it is a feature of the world -- this is along the lines of after-death communications (angeliz) and also seems in line with Lakey's general comments (you can correct me if I'm wrong.).

(FWIW, I personally consider The Fifth Season fantasy because the magic can be wielded... and the world is different in key aspects to Earth. But it's an excellent example of commentary on Earth, and I love fantasy for this sort of thing, as you know. :) I haven't read 1Q84.)

I was more curious about how magical realism is handled in historical pieces--specifically if there's sort of a niche or agents or so on--than a distinction between fantasy and MR, but this current line of thinking is good to mull, too. FTR I have no interest in writing historical fantasy, any more than I wish to write historical fiction. But a family drama surrounding Italian immigration around the turn of the last century does intrigue me--as a departure from SFF. There are enough interesting breadcrumbs in our family mementoes to have me wondering about the possibility of that sort of story. Some of those breadcrumbs evoke fate and the like, hence thoughts about MR.

(As an aside, Al Capone lived a few miles from where my dad was born in 1918. He (Capone) left for Chicago that year or the next, and this is just an aside, but it's an example of the sort of pull that some of these details hold for me. Imagining my dad born while the Five Points Gang was running around the local streets interests me; contextualizes where my dad grew up a little bit. And for my kids and so on, it could be fun to write up something... to give them a taste of their past. )
 
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onesecondglance

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Reading that post, I come back to the key distinction - the "magic" in in magic realism isn't systematised. Individuals can't control it, nor predict it, but neither do they usually remark on it, either. It's more "happenings" than "magic".

Another of my favourite examples for this is in Angela Carter's Nights at the Circus. The main character - who may or may not have actual wings, but is fetished for the mere possibility - is trapped in a sexual tryst with a crazed religious figure. While she initially believes she has the situation under control, it rapidly gets away from her, and in a panic she throws a model train from the mantelpiece onto the ground. In the next scene, this train is the actual Transiberian Express and the character is travelling on it.

She didn't know the train would do that; there is no postulation of objects being able to behave in this way elsewhere in the story. Nor does this character, nor any other, discuss how they came to be on the train. It just is. When I mentioned upthread that the magic in MR operates at a level of metaphor, this is what I meant (I presume Lakey would agree). There's a whole tangle of symbolism and emotion wrapped into that moment, none of which is to do with the mechanism of the magic itself.

This is a fairly extreme example - I wouldn't want you to come away thinking MR means "random bizarre things happen but the characters treat it as mundane". Lauram6123 mentioned Toni Morrison's Beloved, which is a book I really must read again. [Minor spoilers:] There, you have what initially appears to be a ghost, then corporealised, then disappearing again. The main characters find this strange, and disturbing, but as with the other examples of MR, there's no sense of "rules" around the haunting. There's no explicit explanation of how any of it happens, and no need for it; the "magic" is a literalised metaphor.

Like Lakey said, no-one can tell you what your book is or isn't without reading it. Nor should you feel constrained by a label before you've even written the story. Once you've finished it, dip into some of the suggestions on this thread and see how the tone lines up.
 
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Woollybear

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Onesecondglance--That's a very good way to put it, not systematized, and I like your examples of metaphor/magic. Marisa--I will definitely check out the title. Thanks.
 

jennontheisland

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Respectfully I have to disagree with this ....
I see what you mean and I think I understand the differentiation you're making, but the last example
For another angle, consider Nicola Griffith's Hild, set in 7th-century Britain. In that book, everyone believes in magic. The main character, Hild, makes her mark on the world as a seer, predicting the future and interpreting omens. And the book makes completely clear that what Hild is doing is part very careful observation, part sharp deduction, and part showmanship -- no actual magic required.

:e2coffee:

is really what I'm talking about: it's unrecognizable to others as a process, so it's magic.

Reading that post, I come back to the key distinction - the "magic" in in magic realism isn't systematised. Individuals can't control it, nor predict it, but neither do they usually remark on it, either. It's more "happenings" than "magic".
This also ties to my original intent: magic, to the characters, is just one more thing that happens in the world, especially when there is no system or process understood to explain the happenings.
 

CWatts

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1. If magical realism is integrated into a historical immigration (think Ellis-Island-type) story, would such a novel still be historical fiction? Would it be magical realism? Is historical magical realism a 'thing?'

Magical realism is usually associated with folk beliefs. Do the dreams, etc. tie in with what your immigrants brought over from their country of origin? That could also lead to tensions between those who are more traditional and those eager to assimilate.
 

Woollybear

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Magical realism is usually associated with folk beliefs. Do the dreams, etc. tie in with what your immigrants brought over from their country of origin? That could also lead to tensions between those who are more traditional and those eager to assimilate.

I LOVE this.

They are now.
 

frimble3

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And to the differences between those who were actually from the 'Old Country' and their children, who have nothing but America, and second-hand stories of those 'Old Countries' to infuse their dreams. I have found, in my own experience, that there's very much a 'best of times, worst of times' nature to stories told of a different time or place.
 
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Ellis Clover

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Is there a market for adult magical realism?

Yes, I think so. Amy Tan is a classic example (my favourite of hers is 'The Hundred Secret Senses', about the MC's newly-arrived-from-China half-sister who tells the MC fantastical stories about their past lives together). 'Chocolat' by Joanne Harris is also great, if not exactly a current example. Haruki Murakami writes beautiful magical realism. Karen Joy Fowler (19th century - 'Sarah Canary') and Michael Chabon (mid 20th century - 'Summerland', 'The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay') also play with it in historical contexts.
 

CWatts

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Michael Chabon (mid 20th century - 'The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay') also play with it in historical contexts.

I was specifically thinking about the Golem of Prague in that book, which is IIRC the only magical element.
 

llyralen

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A few authors I read call their genre Historical Fantasy. Guy Gravrial Kay and Jules Watson. I got really excited to find this genre, it broke something free in me. These authors are wonderful.

Historical Fantasy. Makes me happy just saying it.
 

ap123

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There absolutely is a market. Some agents/publishers use the term fabulist rather than MR if it's outside of the bounds of Latin America or Latinx author, and that it must be specifically political to be coined MR. You can also use the term speculative, which is broad and loosely defined.
 

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