Stephanie Churchill and I kept bumping into each other online. You know how it is, authors pausing at the virtual water cooler to share and like posts. As soon as I realized that Stephanie was working in historical fantasy, and with a fantasy component that did not include dragons or magic, I was completely intrigued.
Stephanie recently released her second book, The King’s Daughter, to rave reviews. I recently read the first book in the series and her debut novel, The Scribe’s Daughter. The novel ticks all the boxes for me. Her heroine Kassia is plucky and a natural survivor. Throw in an adventure with high stakes and romantic interest, and I was naturally hooked from beginning to end.
I invited Stephanie to chat about her work and to give us more insight into the world of historical fantasy. Welcome Stephanie!
The Scribe’s Daughter has a real historical feel to it from the way people live, work and move around the page. What was your inspiration for this world? Was there a city/country that you had in mind as you were creating it and was it grounded in a specific historical period?
Stephanie: Well, I am a reader of historical fiction probably more than any other genre. Because of this, my imagination is steeped in the feel of historical fiction, and the history I have picked up along the way definitely seeps into everything I write. It seemed a natural “mood” when I started. The Scribe’s Daughter had a somewhat unintentional origin however, so that set up the geographical influences for the book in a way that might not have otherwise occurred.
The very first scene I wrote for Scribe’s was inspired by the animated Disney film Aladdin, specifically the scene in which Aladdin has just stolen an apple and sings the song “One Jump.” So as I began to create Kassia, in the scene where she runs away from a city guardsman, I envisioned an environment set somewhere in the Mediterranean. Kassia’s city Corium quickly took on the feel of a city like Rome or Constantinople, though certainly with Western influences.
My favorite period of history is early medieval, but more often than not I found myself straying into Tudor times for my inspiration simply because I find the fashion much more attractive and the political culture more sophisticated. So I would say my inspiration for the time period was definitely more general than specific. One advantage to writing fantasy over strict historical fiction is that I can stay true to historical facts if I want to while having the freedom to stray in order to fit the needs of the story or the characters or mood (I didn’t feel like inserting an institution like the medieval church into my culture, for instance). My writing mentor, who writes early medieval historical fiction, often comments how jealous she is of my freedom to be creative in this way! I remind her that at least she has a road map for her plot and characters since she has the historical record to follow. My characters, on the other hand, would have their futures left flapping in the wind if I didn’t hanker down and get creative on their behalf!
Beyond time period and setting, there are certainly figures from history who inspired aspects of my characters: Henry II, Henry the Young King, Richard Neville, the 16th Earl of Warwick, Edward IV, and Elizabeth of York to name a few.
Why did you choose to use a historical era and setting? How did that choice enhance your storytelling?
Stephanie: That’s an easy one! My first love is historical fiction. I read a lot of it, and I’ve learned a lot of history because of it. In fact, my friend and mentor, the woman who started me down the road of writing and who had previously been my literary rock star hero, has a lot of influence on how I write from a style and “voice” perspective because of my rabid consumption of all her novels. Through my association with her, I’ve learned a lot about how authors go about writing historical fiction.
She is first a historian and then an author. History comes first for her. Before she begins writing, she does extensive research on every detail of her novels. Because of her success as a novelist and the esteem that readers hold for her dedication to research, the bar has been set ridiculously high for any writing I would choose to do in the same genre. People often ask me why I didn’t just write historical fiction rather than the hybrid I came up with, and the honest answer is that the bar is just too high. I don’t feel prepared to achieve the level of dedication to historical research that I feel I would need to do in order to do the history justice. I know many authors do it, and she isn’t the only one dedicated to research. I just know my own life and commitments, and I don’t have the time or the inclination to do it justice. On the flip side, I don’t read a lot of traditional fantasy either, so I am equally uncomfortable delving into the world of swords and sorcery. There are “rules” for that genre as well, and I don’t know them. My comfort and familiarity is firmly grounded in historical novels.
There is another element that also plays into my choice. There is a subtle difference in the purposes between historical fiction and the fiction I created. Historical fiction puts flesh onto the facts of history, and it’s for this reason people often read historical fiction. They want to learn history, want to discover what life used to be like, to connect with a past they never knew, etc. The history is an essential element alongside the story.
My purpose in writing is different. I come at my writing from a purely creative place where the theme of the book is central, the journey of the characters paramount. With this established, I craft settings and plots to fit the theme, describe the development in an engaging and evocative manner. There isn’t a place, and therefore no need for, any history. Along with that, I don’t really have an interest in being harnessed by the constraints of a particular era or geographical location to accomplish this. And as I’ve said, this crafting takes on echoes of historical fiction since that is my place of personal comfort, and the genre that sets my imagination ablaze. To the extent I can, I do throw in a fair bit of historical accuracy in terms of cultural elements, but this is only to make readers comfortable with a familiar reality. Most of my readers read historical fiction, and I want them to feel at home.
This familiarity is the enhancement, I think. One of the toughest things for me about reading traditional fantasy is learning the new rules for the world into which I’ve just delved. What is the culture, what are the laws, what laws of science are different, and how do I navigate this place? I wanted my readers to feel at home immediately. But I also have the omniscience and omnipotence as the writer to eliminate aspects of true historical fiction I didn’t want to include, thus another benefit (dare I say luxury?) of writing something blurring the lines with fantasy rather than strictly historical fiction.
The story is labeled as historical fantasy because the world is entirely made up, even though there is nothing magical about it. In that I’m reminded of Mary Stewart’s Merlin series which was also labeled as historical fantasy because Merlin was a legend and not because there was real magic. What are your thoughts on the need to include magic in historical fantasy?
Stephanie: Coming up with a genre label for my books was, to be quite honest, the most difficult thing for me to do – more so even than the writing, editing, or any of the polishing. When I first sat down to write my book, I paid no attention to genre. I just wrote the story that was bursting inside, waiting to be told. It was only after I’d written it, when I set about to publish it, that the realities of genre became a real and present difficulty. I searched and searched for books similar to mine, but to no avail. I just couldn’t find anything out there. Certainly, there were elements of other books to be found, but nothing I could point to and say, “My book is just like this!”
The question for me was more of a WHY include magic rather than why not. If an element is included in a book, I would expect it to enhance the book. When writing my story, I had no use for magic, so to throw it in would have been a disservice to my plot and characters. It would have been thrown in simply as a device to somehow legitimize a chosen genre, not because it served a purpose. Just because something is done by the majority of authors (using magic in fantasy) doesn’t mean it has to be gospel truth for every book of that category. I have been asked this question many times by people questioning my genre hybrid, and I laughingly respond with, “Don’t tell me what to do.” I don’t mean that flippantly by any means! There is a smile on my face when I say it. It’s just the Kassia in me coming out, I guess.
At the beginning of each part, you include a quote from J.R.R Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Can you elaborate on why you chose to quote Tolkien? What influence did Tolkien have on your work?
Stephanie: Do you want the real answer or an answer that sounds more profound and intelligent? I’ll just give you both. To put it simply, I love Tolkien. He and C.S. Lewis were the two authors to shape my interpretation of what fantasy should be, long before the days of video game systems and The Legend of Zelda or Dungeons and Dragons began to alter the rules of and expectations for fantasy. The quotes I used were partly a nod to the formation Tolkien provided for me, as well as a nod to his stories at their deepest level – characters who overcome the odds, experience transformation, becoming a stronger, better version of themselves in the process. Each of the quotes I chose at the beginning of each section represents a stage that Kassia is about to enter in her transformation as a character.
I understand in your newly released sequel, The King’s Daughter, you take a character from The Scribe’s Daughter and tell that story. Did you intend to write a series when you were writing the first book and what can we look forward to in the future?
Stephanie: I hadn’t even intended to write a whole book when I first started The Scribe’s Daughter! I had another fully drafted manuscript ready to begin the laborious task of editing, but I wasn’t in love with the voice of the prose. Just for fun, I wondered what it would be like to write in first person, so I wrote the scene I described earlier, the street chase. Kassia took form on the page as a very engaging young woman with a wickedly sharp tongue and I couldn’t stop writing her! I was nearly half way through the first draft of the manuscript when the light bulb turned on in my head – Kassia’s sister Irisa had her own story to tell, and being a unique individual, also had a different perspective to share. This was the birth of the second novel, The King’s Daughter.
As for what is ahead for me, more of these characters have whispered in my ear like Kassia did at the beginning. Kassia and Irisa’s mother told me that she wants to tell her story, and initially thought I’d write her story next. I got a significant amount of planning done for her book, but then the main characters from The King’s Daughter began to make a terrible racket, demanding more time on center stage. When they explained the events unfolding in Prille after I left, I couldn’t ignore them. So I am a couple of chapters into a third book about Irisa and Kassia. I think that for now, their mother’s story will have to wait.
Stephanie Churchill grew up in the American Midwest, and after school moved to Washington, D.C. to work as a paralegal, moving to the Minneapolis metro area when she married. She says, ‘One day while on my lunch break from work, I visited a nearby bookstore and happened upon a book by author Sharon Kay Penman. I’d never heard of her before, but the book looked interesting, so I bought it. Immediately I become a rabid fan of her work. I discovered that Ms. Penman had fan club and that she happened to interact there frequently. As a result of a casual comment she made about how writers generally don’t get detailed feedback from readers, I wrote her an embarrassingly long review of her latest book, Lionheart. As a result of that review, she asked me what would become the most life-changing question: “Have you ever thought about writing?” And The Scribe’s Daughter was born.’
Connect with Stephanie through Twitter (@WriterChurchill), Instagram (@shurchillauthor), Facebook, and through her Website. Stephanie’s books are available through Amazon in Kindle and paperback. For The Scribe’s Daughter, click HERE, and for The King’s Daughter, click HERE.
Thanks for having me, Cryssa. You asked a lot of really great questions, so this was a lot of fun!
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It’s been entirely my pleasure! I really enjoyed it too!
Fascinating interview! It’s funny, I always thought “historical fantasy” meant a real historical setting, but with magic, or some other fantasy elements, but it seems to really mean the exact opposite 😊. The novel sounds very interesting, thanks to both of you for posting.
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Thanks for dropping by. I think the spectrum is quite wide and can encompass both magical and non magical premises. Both are equally valid.
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Definitely agree with Cryssa about the classification being a broad spectrum. Even the “fantasy” label is broader than most people realize. Even so, choosing exactly how to classify my books from a marketing perspective was amazingly difficult. I couldn’t really call the books simply historical or simply fantasy, as neither label really evokes the true sense of what the books are about. Historical for the realism but fantasy for the fictitious nature of the world and characters. Any amount of research I did on the subject didn’t clarify anything for me either! So because of the limits labels can create, historical fantasy it is! Someone suggested my second book could blur into the arena of alternate history too, since in it my characters refer to a culture and race of people on the far side of the world reminiscent of the Romans. I guess I could have created my own genre label, but I have no idea what that would even be.
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Aargh, genre labels can be so frustrating! Really appreciate you sharing your experience.
Great interview! I always wondered why there was no magic in The Scribe’s Daughter…and now I know. 🙂 Good for you for sticking to what your story and your characters dictated rather than what was ‘expected.’ Genre-bending is not an easy road.
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Always best to stick with the original inspiration or it ceases to be your story.
Yeah, definitely not a fan of doing things “just because” or primarily to appeal to a commercial market. If it makes people scratch their heads, then so be it, I suppose! I do think it’s funny how our brains so automatically try to categorize things. If something fits somewhere on the outskirts of our assumed pattern, or even outside it, we just don’t know what to do with it! So it is with genre. I think that in a way, genre labels stifle some people’s creativity because they may have an idea that they decide not to follow through with because they can’t categorize it.
That being said, had I to go back and do it all over again knowing what I know now, would I have written the book differently? Possibly, but I doubt it. In my case, ignorance was bliss at the time of creation. I had the naivete (perhaps?) of writing my story without knowing any better. But I tell you, having questions like “why” and “what is it” have definitely forced me to distill my definition, so in the end I’ve learned a lot!
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