I often think about the most memorable lesson I gained from my seventh and eighth grade history teacher: that engaging with the past never, ever has to be boring. We made travel brochures and ads for the Titanic. We reenacted the Lizzy Borden trial from real court transcripts. There’s always an angle to catch someone’s attention. When I sat down to write That Self-Same Metal, I knew one of my angles was Shakespeare but the other? The other had to be fantastical and nothing opened the story up more than magic.
Picture this. The year is 1605, five years into the turn of the century. The great Virgin Queen, Elizabeth I, has been dead for two years. The new king of England is the Protestant king of Scotland and a lot of folks, particularly the Catholics, are not happy. Oh, and the Bubonic Plague still runs rampant, killing millions of people. It’s a chaotic time in British history, rife with change and intrigue. A time that, writing in That Self-Same Metal, inspired one question. What further chaos was possible if I added a supernatural threat to make a wild year even worse?
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One thing about writing historical fantasy is that you want to make sure your grasp of time period is sound before you start to twist it with magic. Research here becomes essential. I know that already sounds daunting, but never fear, it liberates instead of limits. History tends to be far more interesting and salacious than the things we learn in school. Humans have always been capable of wonderful and terrible things. When you dive into the past, you’ll find things both familiar and strange. And these things are what make you want to sit right down and write.
I’ve noticed speaking to other historical fantasy writers is that some tidbit, unusual or mundane, takes hold of our imaginations and sets us off down the creative path. That process of excavating the facts you need to paint an accurate picture of the past truly inspires. Eventually, you’ll find spaces around and between these where your fantastical elements can fit. That’s where we shake things up.
Real History, Supernatural Circumstances
To speak specifically on my process, I started with two research books: 1606: The Year of Lear by James Shapiro and Black Gods: Orisha Studies in the New World by John Mason. Those got me to the foundations of my story. From there, I found other places to ground my history: in clothing, in foods, in the sounds and smells of London, and in the experience of The Globe Theatre. Then Black Gods and A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare helped me create my fantastical. As a note, when handling the Orisha and the magic they bless people with in the story, I did my best to respectfully cultivate a fictionalized version of real, living religions and practices. Because, even within the freedom of our imaginings for the past, we do not tell our stories in isolation. And really, that’s the greatest gift and privilege of writing historical fantasy: offering respect, space, and visibility to some who have so often been ignored by other narratives. That is the greatest truth we can wield magic to reveal.
With that base of historical facts, you give yourself space to riff. It’s almost like playing a jazz cover of a familiar song: the core notes have to be there to make it recognizable but beyond that, go wild. Build the scaffolding of mundane things that uphold the world you’re writing. Once you have that base structure, let magic run amok. Find the places where the true leaves room for the mystical and the places where they could overlap. And don’t feel too precious.
The best advice I got from another historical fantasy writer was not to be beholden to dates or to following events exactly as they were reported. Your fantastical elements are like a stone tossed into a pond, they ripple outward causing any number of changes. Plots that failed can be successful. Battles that happened months apart can suddenly occur days apart. We are not, after all, writing a text book or even creative non-fiction. The rules of historical fantasy allow for the most bombastic detours because who can limit a world where magic exists. See what I mean about the freedom?
Meet Brittany N. Williams
Brittany N. Williams is a classically-trained actress who studied Musical Theatre at Howard University and Shakespearean performance at the Royal Central School of Speech & Drama in London. Previously she’s been a principal vocalist at Hong Kong Disneyland, a theatre professor at Coppin State University, and made appearances in Queen Sugar and Leverage: Redemption. Her short stories have been published in The Gambit Weekly, Fireside Magazine, and the Star Wars anthology From a Certain Point of View: The Empire Strikes Back.
About THAT SELF-SAME METAL
A stunning YA fantasy debut, perfect for fans of Holly Black and Justina Ireland, about a Black girl (and sword expert) fighting a Fae uprising in Shakespearean London
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Sixteen-year-old Joan Sands is a gifted craftswoman who creates and upkeeps the stage blades for William Shakespeare’s acting company, The King’s Men. Joan’s skill with her blades comes from a magical ability to control metal—an ability gifted by her Head Orisha, Ogun. Because her whole family is Orisha-blessed, the Sands family have always kept tabs on the Fae presence in London. Usually that doesn’t involve much except noting the faint glow around a Fae’s body as they try to blend in with London society, but lately, there has been an uptick in brutal Fae attacks. After Joan wounds a powerful Fae and saves the son of a cruel Lord, she is drawn into political intrigue in the human and Fae worlds.
Swashbuckling, romantic, and full of the sights and sounds of Shakespeare’s London, this series starter delivers an unforgettable story—and a heroine unlike any other.
PRAISE FOR THAT SELF-SAME METAL
“Full of nimble prose and wit as sharp as the blades on its pages, THIS BOOK IS NOTHING SHORT OF A SPECTACULAR DEBUT… I know that this is going to be a groundbreaking addition to the fantasy genre.” — Ayana Gray, New York Times-bestselling author Beasts of Prey
“EVERY SENTENCE OF THAT SELF-SAME METAL WILL THUNDER THROUGH YOUR BONES. Rich in place and time, with a steely protagonist at its center, I felt like I’d been spirited to another land and time.” — Roshani Chokshi, New York Times bestselling author of The Gilded Wolves and Aru Shah
“WILDLY IMAGINATIVE AND REFRESHINGLY DIVERSE, Williams weaves a twisty Shakespearean-inspired fantasy taut with intrigue.” — J. Elle, New York Times bestselling author of Wings of Ebony
“Williams’ debut is an absolute feast of imagination. COMPLEX, BROODING, IMPOSSIBLE TO PUT DOWN.” — Scott Reintgen, bestselling author of A Door in the Dark
“Seamlessly weaves together history, fantasy, culture, magic, and love . . . I couldn’t stop reading it, and when I finished all I wanted was more. JOAN SANDS MAY BE A HERO IN ANOTHER ERA, BUT ALSO SHE’S THE ONE WE URGENTLY NEED IN BOOKS RIGHT NOW.” — Daniel José Older, New York Times bestselling author of Shadowshaper and Ballad & Dagger
That Self-Same Metal (The Forge & Fracture Saga Book 1) By Brittany N Williams
Amulet Books | April 25, 2023 | Price: $19.99 | ISBN: 978-1-4197-5864-5 | 352 pages