As an independent author of historical fantasy fiction, I’ve got a problem. And no. I don’t mean the task of writing copy that there’s no guarantee many people are ever going to read.
It has to do with that feeling. You know. That utter consternation you experience when the buildings, streets, or monuments you want to feature in a story were constructed right after the timeframe your novels are set in?
No? Well, let me explain it to you.
Recently, on a trip to Iași, I gained my newest full dose of this exact emotion.
My novels are set in the late 1880’s, with my recent trilogy, Keepers of the Stone, taking place between 1886-7.
Iași figures prominently in the sequel trilogy to Keepers — Voyages of Fortune — which I’m currently writing. It’s partly set about two years later, in 1889. The Moldavian town serves as the headquarters of a evil gypsy camp. The constitutive rival of our Roma protagonists in Keepers: Book Three. I got the idea for the setting from my first trip to Iași in 2015. It was here that I attended my first academic conference, arriving after a flight to Bucharest and then a nine hour train ride clear across Romania (By the way, actually recommended).
Going to a place once and then deciding to write a book that’s partially set there are two totally different things.
I’d been able to get my British university to fund my attendance at the 2017 meeting of the Alexandru Ioan Cuza University’s international EURINT conference. Its held every year Iași and has been one of the smallest but most useful I’ve attended. This time, I arrived from Brussels via Vienna on an Austrian Air flight directly to Iași’s international airport. For my encore visit, I was going to present a paper. But, I also had a secret mission: on the ground research for my books’ setting in period Iași.
The amount of things I thought I knew — and was wrong about — shocked me. Some worked for my story. I had to find ways around others. For instance, today’s main strolling street that runs between Piața Mihai Eminescu and Piața Unirii would have been considered a slum during the time period I’m writing about. In my case that works in favor of the story. Especially considering who the villains are. The nearby esplanade makes a nice tie-in:
Other problems proved harder to work out. Writing historically set fiction in the era I do, I’ve ran into this exact problem time and again. Its annoying. Buildings I want to feature tend to be uncannily built just after the time frame I’m writing about. In Keepers, this was notably the case with Antwerp’s famous train station, and the San Francisco ferry terminal. Originally, I’d planned to feature descriptions of them. Except they weren’t built until a decade or more after. So, no can do. Iași proved to be a continuation of this rule. The national theater — the first in modern Romania — the present day City Hall and the Palace of Culture (in its more present form) all were built in the 1890’s or later.
Sometimes there’s not much you can do about this problem. In other cases, there is. During my travel to Iași from Brussels, I had a three hour layover in Vienna. I used it to bang out the ending of the second book in Voyages of Fortune. In it, the protagonists are herded into an entrance of an extra-temporal realm called the Invisible Circus. Though they start out in Iași. From my first visit to the city, I know the specific setting was inspired by a square next to the cathedral — which would have been newly renovated circa 1889.
Despite present day the environs of the adjacent square being communist-era in appearance, ancient-looking ruins are recessed into the place’s underground. Upon my initial visit the walls looked to me as if they’d originated from antiquity. Yet, they’re underground stone basement remnants that only date from the middle ages. The ruins weren’t uncovered until after World War Two. In either case, during the modern era, the antiquated basements house a rather cool subterranean bar.
At least that’s the official story. But, what if those ruins — in what then would have been the city’s worst slum — had been uncovered and then filled in over a century ago? When I went back to editing, that’s what now happens in my next trilogy.
Other chronographic dilemmas are more difficult to resolve. For instance: the current location of Iași’s Palace of Culture has been a palace of something-or-other for centuries. Proving exactly what state of repair it would have been in, despite my second trip, remains an ongoing task.
At times, returning to a place that’s inspired you creates hurdles. In other instances inspiration strikes. On my way back to Iași’s airport, the cab moved down a hill through a thick forest. Then, it exited into a wide canon. It’s now diked with a dam. However, I knew this clearing would have to serve as a location in Voyages of Fortune. I just drafted the opening of its third book. And that’s where its set.
Setting stories in certain periods can be frustrating. But its also rewarding. So is travel. My second trip to Iași showed how true that can be. And also proved the inspiration that can come from visiting a place in a different way, for a second time.