Wednesday, September 25, 2013

E. C. Ambrose: Blurring the Boundaries of History, Reality and Fantasy

Just the other day I was discussing with some of my fantasy writing acquaintance how over time, a character I've written can become so real that find myself looking for them in the index of a book, or thinking of them as actually related to a real historical person. It can even be hard to remember, sometimes, what I've read and what I made up. Fortunately no one threatened to love me up... at the time. If they do, I can point to  the wonderfully perceptive E.C. Ambrose, who will make it all make sense.

Elisha Barber, the first novel in my new Dark Apostle series, was born of reading too much history.  I became interested in medieval medicine while doing some research for a scene in another book.  Trouble was, the research itself was so fascinating, I couldn't leave it alone, and I kept reading—tracking down new titles to explore from the footnotes of the old, finding translations of medieval medical
texts and indulging in detailed descriptions of operations like trepanation, amputation and "cutting for the stone."

I knew I was ready to write when all of that history brimmed over in my story space, and started spilling out images:  a man, his hands dripping with blood, stood in a sunlit doorway saying, "My God, I've killed them all."  Who did he kill?  And why, and what would happen next? I had to write the book to find out.

But writing into history carries its own special thrills and dangers.  First of all, how much history did I really want to use?  I had to find a balance between creating a believable alternate reality, and leaving myself enough room to tell the story I envisioned.  First thing, the historical monarchy had to go—but not far.  Based on a few coincidental dates around the timing of a beautiful woman's visit to King
Edward Longshanks, and the subsequent birth of her child after a rather hurried marriage, I found myself a new heir to the throne—all it took after that was the king's falling out with his son (reality), his proclamation of legitimacy for this woman's child (fantasy), his own illness and death (reality) and his heir's death in battle (fantasy), and my new heir seizing the throne (well, he certainly would have if he could—he was one of Edward II's special favorites and a thoroughly nasty piece of work).

The twisting together of fantasy and history thus becomes more dense, hopefully blurring the boundaries until my ideas are seamlessly blended with the facts.  Then there is reality itself.  When you write historical fiction, you're not only constructing fantasy on the scaffold of the historical record, but building upon the foundation of a real place and time.  Which is, of course, an excellent excuse to travel to England

While I was researching that first research jaunt, I found a flat to stay in with a view of Saint Bartholomew's Church, a location which figures in the book.  St. Bart's, as it is affectionately known, was founded by Rahere, the fool and crusading companion of King Henry II.  He fell ill while on pilgrimage, and made a vow to build a church and hospital if he returned safely home.  And there they stand to this day, hard by Smithfield, just outside London's city wall, with the fool himself buried inside, a wonderful legacy on which to craft my fantasy.

And when I took in the view from that flat, I thought, "Oh—there's the churchyard where Elisha's brother is buried!"  Except. . .Elisha is a fictional being, an invisible friend of mine, brought to life through words alone.  He has no brother, and his brother has no grave.  He does not, alas, exist—not now, and not in London in the fourteenth century.

And yet.  And yet, the book can now be enjoyed by readers all over the world, readers unfamiliar with the time and place of its setting, who are simply looking for a good fantasy.  Perhaps my blending of history and reality will spark their curiosity, and some of them will delve further, uncovering the startling events that really lead to the downfall of Edward II, or gaining a better understanding of the history of medicine (along with a healthy dose of gratitude not to be living back then).  And maybe one day soon, a reader of my fantasy will be walking a certain street in London and stop at the sight of the brick-and-stone church of Saint Bartholomew to think, "That's where Elisha's adventure began—I wonder where he'll go next?" And my illusion formed of fantasy and history will have taken on a reality of its own.

Read samples etc. from E.C. Ambrose

For sample chapters, historical research and some nifty extras, visit

For more about E.C. Ambrose

E. C. Ambrose blogs about the intersections between fantasy and history at

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