History That Never Was

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An Interview with Heather Rose Jones

Today, I’m chatting with Heather Rose Jones about her new book, Floodtide, her Lesbian Historic Motif Project, and other matters of writing and history!

Heather Rose Jones is the author of the Alpennia historic fantasy series: an alternate-Regency-era Ruritanian adventure revolving around women’s lives woven through with magic, alchemy, and intrigue. Her short fiction has appeared in The Chronicles of the Holy Grail, Sword and Sorceress, Lace and Blade, and at Podcastle.org. Heather blogs about research into lesbian-relevant motifs in history and literature at the Lesbian Historic Motif Project and has a podcast covering the field of lesbian historical fiction which has recently expanded into publishing audio fiction. She reviews books at The Lesbian Review as well as on her blog. She works as an industrial failure investigator in biotech pharmaceuticals.

You can find her at her website, on Twitter, and on Facebook!

DV: Tell us a little bit about yourself and your writing.

Heather Rose Jones: I’ve always loved exploring history as a way to understand other lives, and especially the details of everyday life–how they both reflect and influence people’s experiences. That love has come out in many different ways over my lifetime: travel, reading biographies and historical fiction, studying the archaeology of material culture, participating in historic re-creation, even going so far as to get a PhD in historical linguistics. Writing my own historical fiction was a natural result, especially when it gives me a chance to fill in spaces in the past that either chance or bias have blurred from knowledge.

My published novels are all part of the same series, which I describe as “Regency-era Ruritanian romantic fantasy.” The unifying theme of the series is the ways in which women form bonds and communities of all types, with a lot of emphasis on same-sex romance, though not always with a happily ever after ending. The latest contribution, Floodtide, is a departure from the high-society balls and duels and university adventures of the previous books. This one focuses on a working-class girl who doesn’t have any particular magical talents, but falls into a close friendship with another young woman who does. It’s a bit of a coming of age story in which Rozild, the protagonist, learns some hard lessons about love and friendship and balancing responsibilities. Plus: helping perform miracles.

DV: A number of your books, including Floodtide, are set in the fictional country of Alpennia. What were your real-world influences in the creation of this country?

HRJ: The first Alpennia story, Daughter of Mystery, was originally going to be set in France, but there were specific things I needed to do with the social and legal systems that simply wouldn’t work the way I needed them to. A certain amount of the look-and-feel of Alpennia remains strongly French, or at least similar to regions that fall on the periphery of France the way Alpennia does.

Some of the concrete imagery I use when I’m envisioning the city of Rotenek and its surroundings are influenced by the places I’ve lived in Europe: Prague and Munich. For the history and social structure, I extrapolated common elements from the deep history of southwestern Europe but added in a few traditions and customs of my own invention so it wouldn’t feel too similar to any existing country. So Alpennia was once part of the Roman empire, it has a Romance language with a streak of germanic vocabulary. It sits around the Catholic/Protestant divide but stayed largely Catholic during the Reformation. Being land-locked and fairly small, it never developed the resources to participate significantly in colonial adventures, but it has strong trade connections through the Mediterranean, though it’s dependent on the good will of France to maintain them. France is a strong influence on the upper class culture of Alpennia, though traditional alliances were shaken up during Napoleonic times, when Alpennia barely escaped being swallowed up.

I’ve done a certain amount of developing the Alpennian language, though I only use a very few words and phrases in the books. I have a few timelines sketched out for Alpennia history, especially the history of its university and the real story of Tanfrit the philosopher, who makes an appearance as a legend in Mother of Souls.

DV: What made you decide to develop a fictional country rather than altering the history of a real-world country to suit the needs of your series?

HRJ: I’ll confess that inventing a whole new country was laziness, to some extent. Readers get surprisingly prickly when a story gets something they care about “wrong”. The Regency romance genre is given a lot of slack for inventing a glut of young, handsome, unmarried dukes and earls, but I’ve seen how even the most forgiving reader can wince if you screw up the details of inheritance law.

Inventing a country not only meant that I could tweak the details of society necessary for the plot of that first book, but it meant I had more leeway to adapt Alpennian reality to the needs of the stories, rather than constantly worrying about the balance of history and fiction.

HRJ: How does the presence of Alpennia and magic impact the history of Europe as we know it? What’s different in the world of your stories?

This is always a question in alternate histories: do you change one thing and then watch the ripples of difference that spread out from it? Or is it mostly the same as the world we know but with a certain strangeness?

I took the approach that history has a certain weight to it–a center of gravity–that means larger events and patterns follow similar lines even when the details may be different. Inserting a new principality into the middle of early 19th century Europe wouldn’t necessarily change the big picture. There were still a lot of small semi-independent principalities and duchies in the 18th century that were only gradually being absorbed into the growing nation-states.

The effects of magic are a larger question. Although I imply that Alpennia is special in some ways due to the specific history of its mystical traditions, I also try to make it clear that magical forces are present throughout the world of my stories, but that they developed differently in different societies. I added just enough random uncertainty to how the magic works to explain why it never became a systematic science. Individual people and events can be affected by magic, but the larger tides of history rise and fall the same.

In worldbuilding terms, I had to follow the “historic momentum” theory to be believable, because magic has always existed in that world. If the existence of magic were going to cause major changes in the course of history, it would already be unrecognizably different from our own by the equivalent of the 19th century.

I’m not trying to tell large-scale “what if” stories with big consequences. I’m using magic to disrupt the smaller details of people’s lives and see how they react. In Floodtide, most of the magic is on a small, intimate scale: charms to help with the laundry, fortune telling, healing–all the little practices you perform because you worry about what would happen if you didn’t do them.

DV: In addition to your Alpennia series, you write some historical fiction. What time period (or periods) do you find most fascinating to mine for historical fiction ideas?

HRJ: I don’t really have a single favorite era. I was actually surprised that the first book I sold was set so late, because most of my story ideas are set before the Rensaissance. I have outlines and plot notes for stories scattered across the centuries from the Roman empire onward.

Lately I’ve been developing a special fondness for the 17th century because it was a time of major upheavals in people’s understanding of gender and sexuality, and there were a lot of absolutely fascinating women active in that century who are providing inspiration for my imagination. My first venture into that era is the novelette “The Mazarinette and the Musketeer” which is available for free on my website, but I’ve been noodling with some ideas for a series of linked romances set during the English Restoration.

That project competes with several others in other centuries, and I might just as easily go back to working on my Roman Britain novel or the 10th century Viking adventure. All of them feature romance between women, needless to say!

DV: Your Lesbian Historic Motif Project is an enormous and ambitious project. How long have you been working on it? Have you found anything that surprised you while doing the research for this project?

HRJ: The biggest–and most delightful–surprise is how much research there is being done on gender and sexuality in history, or women’s lives in general. The guiding purpose of the project is to assemble historic materials that would be useful to authors writing historic stories about women in same-sex relationships. That means I’m not only interested in sexuality specifically, but things like women’s legal and economic status, demographics, understandings of what it meant to be a woman or a man, and even the definition of what counted as “sex.”

I wanted to write stories about women loving women that were based on actual history and not on plunking down modern lesbians in the past. So the relationships I write aren’t always ones that my readers would want for themselves. But isn’t that the case with a lot of stories?

I started collecting research materials for what became the Lesbian Historic Motif Project back when I was in college in the late 1970s, though there was much less available back then. For a long time, I wasn’t doing anything organized with it all. I had an idea that I’d turn the work into a published sourcebook, but the scope of the task was a bit daunting and I wanted to make sure that I included absolutely everything there was to know about lesbians in history. Silly me!

Then around 2012 I started working on a systematic catalog and in 2014 I started the LHMP blog. In effect, it’s the sort of annotated bibliography and content summaries that one might do for doctoral research. Except I don’t have to be as organized or systematic as I was for my PhD!

The podcast emerged out of the same research in 2016 when I wanted to reach a wider and different audience with some of the more dramatic and colorful material from my research. It started out with a monthly documentary-type show. Later I expanded to weekly and added author interviews, book recommendations, new book listings, and audio fiction.

DV: Speaking of audio fiction, you have a call for submissions for the fiction series opening in January 2020. Are there any locations or time periods you would really love to read fiction from during this submission period?

HRJ: The majority of the submissions I receive are set around the 19th century either in the USA or England. (I specifically ask for pre-1900 stories, or I’d get lots of 20th century settings, too.) So to a large extent, anything outside that scope is refreshing. I love getting non-European, non-US settings, or non-white characters, with the caveat that I want sensitive portrayals from authors who can write the cultures from the inside or from deep knowledge. I’m also looking for stories where more is going on than just girl meets girl. Romance is lovely, but I also want plot. This time I’m trying something new and accepting stories with fantastic elements–not ones that are used as an escape hatch for writing well-grounded history, but to allow for fantasy elements that were accepted as part of the historic culture of the setting.

DV: What are you working on next?

HRJ: That’s always a hard question. When I’m between major writing projects, I tend to flit around adding details and notes to a dozen different file folders. I’m trying to finish a couple of shorter Alpennian stories–ones that didn’t fit into the novels of the main series–before moving on to the next Alpennia novel, Mistress of Shadows. Between having a fairly intense day job, the blog and podcast, and the fiction, I’m falling down on my original goal of writing a novel a year, so having some short pieces in between is a way of keeping readers interested.

Mistress of Shadows will be more of an action-adventure story, with spies and Satanic plots and international intrigue. It’ll be a new challenge since much of the action will take place in Paris, so I won’t be able to just make things up like I usually do.

I have several non-Alpennia projects that keep knocking on the door, but I’m a bit afraid of losing momentum on the series. There are three more books to go to finish it!

Thanks, Heather!

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