Can 'Historical fiction' include magical realism?

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Lakey

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This is a great discussion and I’m happy to see it revived, but please keep in mind as you reply to posts in it that some of them are two years old.

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Woollybear

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I was such a youthful thing when I posted this. :)

In those intervening two years, I've shifted to wanting to write a historically-focused novel, with no magic. So for me, the point is currently moot.

Originally, I had wanted some sort of magic around a family story I recall (which no one else in the family seems to recall): to receive his inheritance, my father needed to attend the music conservatory in northern Italy, and there, he learned to play violin. I wasn't certain how the magic would manifest, and maybe I was under the influence of George's Magical Pianos at the time. I wanted some element of wonder to enliven the pages. The story, as I saw it back then, would focus on my father who lived through the depression and went to war.

I've since decided to write the story about his mother, my grandmother from Bologna, and doing the research into her life has been amazing and fantastic. I plan to open the story on New Year's Eve, 1899, a year in which she would have been 21. In Bologna.

Most recently I've been researching new year's traditions there and have discovered Rogo del Vecchione, lentils, red undergarments, and fireworks.

Grandma and her charming older brother Armando will be at one of the piazzas, celebrating the turn of the century together. That's as far as I've gotten (on the planned open... I've got documents galore and ideas galore for the rest of the story), and I guess it already feels pretty magical to me. :)
 

frimble3

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I had exactly the same doubts (posted in the wrong thread...still learning how to get around here.)
I acknowledge that it can be irritating for some readers to find "magic" in historical novels but hopefully not all readers will feel this way. I can also see that it is more convincing to the reader if you are asking him/her to acknowledge a character's belief in magic rather than being asked by the author to believe in the magic.
It might be less irritating for those readers if some hint, at least, of magic is introduced early in the novel, so that they don't feel mislead.
Especially if you're writing about the Spanish Civil War, which is not a 'usual' setting for fantasy, I think.
They can either throw the book at the wall, or accept the premise and continue reading, but they won't feel 'cheated' that their historical fiction turned into fantasy.

My father, for example liked sea stories, particularly about various navies. If part way through a sea battle, a selkie, mermaid, or sea monster appeared, that book would have met the nearest wall. If the fantasy creature was on the first page, he would merely have put the book down and gone on to the next.
 
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frimble3

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I was such a youthful thing when I posted this. :)

In those intervening two years, I've shifted to wanting to write a historically-focused novel, with no magic. So for me, the point is currently moot.

Originally, I had wanted some sort of magic around a family story I recall (which no one else in the family seems to recall): to receive his inheritance, my father needed to attend the music conservatory in northern Italy, and there, he learned to play violin. I wasn't certain how the magic would manifest, and maybe I was under the influence of George's Magical Pianos at the time. I wanted some element of wonder to enliven the pages. The story, as I saw it back then, would focus on my father who lived through the depression and went to war.

I've since decided to write the story about his mother, my grandmother from Bologna, and doing the research into her life has been amazing and fantastic. I plan to open the story on New Year's Eve, 1899, a year in which she would have been 21. In Bologna.

Most recently I've been researching new year's traditions there and have discovered Rogo del Vecchione, lentils, red undergarments, and fireworks.

Grandma and her charming older brother Armando will be at one of the piazzas, celebrating the turn of the century together. That's as far as I've gotten (on the planned open... I've got documents galore and ideas galore for the rest of the story), and I guess it already feels pretty magical to me. :)
So, your grandmother emigrated to the US, and her son, years later, had to go to a music conservatory in Italy to receive some sort of inheritance? There can be a lot of magic in an old violin. Even if it isn't overt. Even if it's just a recurring motif.
Good luck with the new story.
 

elichalli

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It might be less irritating for those readers if some hint, at least, of magic is introduced early in the novel, so that they don't feel mislead.
Especially if you're writing about the Spanish Civil War, which is not a 'usual' setting for fantasy, I think.
They can either throw the book at the wall, or accept the premise and continue reading, but they won't feel 'cheated' that their historical fiction turned into fantasy.

My father, for example liked sea stories, particularly about various navies. If part way through a sea battle, a selkie, mermaid, or sea monster appeared, that book would have met the nearest wall. If the fantasy creature was on the first page, he would merely have put the book down and gone on to the next.
The first bit of magical realism appears on p22. Does that seem too far in?
 

Woollybear

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You will have the title, cover art, and blurb at your disposal as well.
 
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frimble3

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The first bit of magical realism appears on p22. Does that seem too far in?
It would depend on what came before, 22 pages of warfare or domestic drama might seem a long time before dropping a little magic realism in.
But, listen to Wooly Bear, you can do a lot of hinting with title, cover and blurb.
And, what form does the 'magical realism' take? Some things are easier to hint at than others.
The magical proofing bowl that can feed a multitude with only a pinch of dough.
The ammo belt that is never quite out of bullets.
As opposed to the sudden appearance of angels if no religious beliefs were previously mentioned. Or, indeed the lizard that becomes a dragon.
 
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elichalli

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It might be less irritating for those readers if some hint, at least, of magic is introduced early in the novel, so that they don't feel mislead.
Especially if you're writing about the Spanish Civil War, which is not a 'usual' setting for fantasy, I think.
They can either throw the book at the wall, or accept the premise and continue reading, but they won't feel 'cheated' that their historical fiction turned into fantasy.

My father, for example liked sea stories, particularly about various navies. If part way through a sea battle, a selkie, mermaid, or sea monster appeared, that book would have met the nearest wall. If the fantasy creature was on the first page, he would merely have put the book down and gone on to the next.

It would depend on what came before, 22 pages of warfare or domestic drama might seem a long time before dropping a little magic realism in.
But, listen to Wooly Bear, you can do a lot of hinting with title, cover and blurb.
And, what form does the 'magical realism' take? Some things are easier to hint at than others.
The magical proofing bowl that can feed a multitude with only a pinch of dough.
The ammo belt that is never quite out of bullets.
As opposed to the sudden appearance of angels if no religious beliefs were previously mentioned. Or, indeed the lizard that becomes a dragon.
Thank you for this!
The first bit of magical realism is when the announcements of the deaths of the day are made in the prison patio. Nuns used to tease the prisoners, since many names began with Maria, they would say Maria then linger and eventually give the rest of the name. So to try to give dignity and resilience to this horrendous experience, I use magical realism when the announcement of the mother's son is made, she stands up on her four legs, his name is a leaf that is swept up into the air in the patio and she stretches out her long neck and brings him home with her tongue. (so she becomes a giraffe but I dont says this directly).
 

frimble3

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Thank you for this!
The first bit of magical realism is when the announcements of the deaths of the day are made in the prison patio. Nuns used to tease the prisoners, since many names began with Maria, they would say Maria then linger and eventually give the rest of the name. So to try to give dignity and resilience to this horrendous experience, I use magical realism when the announcement of the mother's son is made, she stands up on her four legs, his name is a leaf that is swept up into the air in the patio and she stretches out her long neck and brings him home with her tongue. (so she becomes a giraffe but I dont says this directly).
This might be a stretch as a first mention, especially as giraffes are not native to Spain.
Maybe in the first 22 mages you could make some reference to the mother and giraffe imagery, or fondness for the creatures, or something like a photo of an elegant giraffe that she kept, or somesuch? Horses also have long necks and tongues, so you might want to introduce the idea of giraffe imagery earlier.

If a soldier was becoming a pig, or a fierce dog, it
would be an easier leap.
But, I have to say, the image of a giraffe taking up her son, as a leaf, on her tongue and carrying him away is really touching my heart.
 
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elichalli

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This might be a stretch as a first mention, especially as giraffes are not native to Spain.
Maybe in the first 22 mages you could make some reference to the mother and giraffe imagery, or fondness for the creatures, or something like a photo of an elegant giraffe that she kept, or somesuch? Horses also have long necks and tongues, so you might want to introduce the idea of giraffe imagery earlier.

If a soldier was becoming a pig, or a fierce dog, it
would be an easier leap.
But, I have to say, the image of a giraffe taking up her son, as a leaf, on her tongue and carrying him away is really touching my heart.
Mmmm grifaffes not native to Spain is true...but a horse doesnt quite do it for me. As you say, it touches the heart! (And thank you!). Your idea of some hint of magical realism earlier has got me thinking.... But for the giraffe, it would probably just have to be some kind of reference to a giraffe...the mother wishing she had a long neck like a giraffe to be able to see outside of the cell for example....I think that could work....Thank you!!!
 
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frimble3

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Mmmm grifaffes not native to Spain is true...but a horse doesnt quite do it for me. As you say, it touches the heart! (And thank you!). Your idea of some hint of magical realism earlier has got me thinking.... But for the giraffe, it would probably just have to be some kind of reference to a giraffe...the mother wishing she had a long neck like a giraffe to be able to see outside of the cell for example....I think that could work....Thank you!!!
Perhaps if the mother earlier had noted some village beauty with a long neck, comparing her to a graceful giraffe, and then the mother wished that she had a long, giraffe-like neck like that woman, so that she could see outside of the cell?
Maybe some variation of that? Brief little mentions so that the 'giraffe' doesn't come out of nowhere.
And, I agree, a horses long neck is nothing like magical enough - but it was the nearest local animal that I could think of, and without prior mention of giraffes, the likeliest image of four-legs and a long neck that a reader might think of.
 
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elichalli

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Perhaps if the mother earlier had noted some village beauty with a long neck, comparing her to a graceful giraffe, and then the mother wished that she had a long, giraffe-like neck like that woman, so that she could see outside of the cell?
Maybe some variation of that? Brief little mentions so that the 'giraffe' doesn't come out of nowhere.
And, I agree, a horses long neck is nothing like magical enough - but it was the nearest local animal that I could think of, and without prior mention of giraffes, the likeliest image of four-legs and a long neck that a reader might think of.
Excellent! Will probably have to be that another prisoner comments and envies that she has a long giraffe like neck...then the link is even better.
This is fun! Thanks!
 
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frimble3

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Excellent! Will probably have to be that another prisoner comments and envies that she has a long giraffe like neck...then the link is even better.
This is fun! Thanks!
An even better idea! The fellow prisoner is nearer to the scene, and it seems a more natural way to bring it up!
This is the idea of suggestions, not to say 'do this or do that' but to give ideas that may make you think of what works for you.
 
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I can also see that it is more convincing to the reader if you are asking him/her to acknowledge a character's belief in magic rather than being asked by the author to believe in the magic.
In the modern world, it makes sense to draw sharp distinctions between magic and science, or belief and knowledge. But that's not true for historical characters. It feels arrogant to try to write a novel that includes mythology while sniggering about the subjects' primitive grasp on reality.

I prefer for an ancient narrator to unapologetically explain events through magic. They should exaggerate the skills of witches and omit stories where prophecies failed. The reader who doesn't want to believe in magic should have to work hard to explain away the coincidences.

From what I can tell, that makes readers uncomfortable, and so agents probably will be, too. Almost every one of this forum's wonderful query critiquers told me that my query is historical fantasy, not historical fiction. Based on that, I might have to label my novel historical fantasy in order to find an audience open to the wonder and mystery of the natural world.
 
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Woollybear

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I love the magic in your story, @jparry. Heck, how many people today believe in magic? A lot.

I've learned that the blurb and cover can pull a lot of weight in these situations. So, as one of the critters on your beta entry, I see why you are getting this feedback--we aren't fully grounded by the open itself--but if you feel strongly that the integrity of your work stands as is, then consider using the blurb and cover (or query letter pitch) to prepare the reader for the mash-up you've created (or to prepare the possible agent).

I have a similar dilemma with my current project. Most readers do not care for the voice, which I am trying to make omniscient. About half encourage close and limited third, but that advice is wrong to my personal goals. So, I need to find a solution to the reader response. The blurb might be that solution. Another solution is finding similar books (in your case, something anchored in a culture when magic was discussed matter-of-factly) and analyzing those books with a magnifying glass.
 
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