We’ve visited Alpennia before in this series, but I have a particular treat for you today. As part of the publicity around the release of her new Alpennia novel Floodtide, author Heather Rose Jones has written a guest post exploring why she chose to set her stories in a fictional location, and what she had to consider once she’d made that choice.
It’s worth noting that, while Floodtide is a standalone and you don’t need to have read any of the previous books in the series to enjoy it, Heather is Bella Books’ featured author until the end of the month, so this is an excellent opportunity to pick up all the other Alpennia books at 30% off.
I’ve heard the question often enough: If you’re setting your story in actual history rather than a pure secondary world, why invent a country to set it in? Why not use a real location? What is the appeal of Ruritania?
Some of the reasons are practical. If your characters are major figures in their setting, maybe you don’t want to insert them into events and relationships that actually existed. Maybe no historic figures did the things or were the sorts of people you need. In my case, I started out thinking I was going to set my story in France, but I needed some specific legal and social structures to make my plot work, and those were impossible in a French setting. In order to give my imagination the space to work, I needed to remove the constraints of an existing historic society. Plot trumped history and so Alpennia was born. (The fantasy elements came later.)
Part of the appeal can be a type of laziness. Some authors are happy to break history and deal with the consequences when a subset of readers protest, “That’s not how it works! That’s not how any of this works!” Others may prefer the softer path–the ability to say, “That’s just how things are in this country.” Ruritania isn’t an excuse to create a society that isn’t internally consistent. There are limits to how lazy you can be and still write a good story. But the limits are more elastic, more forgiving.
An excellent reason to use an invented country is to be sensitive to the real-world cultures that inspired you. This is a sensitive topic, because borrowing elements you find inspiring can merge into appropriating the heritage of actual people while erasing their ancestors from the story. I’ve tried to make it clear that Alpennia is its own place, not an existing culture dressed up in a costume, but the approach has its own risks.
Sometimes inventing a country is a case of wanting to create a setting that could have existed but never did. To design realistic people and events that by chance never happened. Or ones that you suspect did happen but have been written out of history. The heart of my books is a focus on queer women. We know from the bits and scraps that were recorded (and for whom those records survived) that women have loved each other across the ages, but only certain types of stories have come down to us. Often the ones that ended badly. I don’t claim that Alpennia was some sort of queer paradise, but by creating my own society, I can integrate my queer characters without the charge “that’s unhistorical because these people aren’t in the history books.”
Once you’ve decided to invent your own country, the question becomes “how?”
I wanted a place that made sense within its context–that could have evolved naturally out of real historic settings and forces. The geography might be inserted sideways into the existing map of Europe, but the culture, the history, the economy needed to be unexceptional.
The original idea of setting the story in France had already shaped parts of the culture, so it made sense to place it on the border of that country. There were still plenty of small semi-independent duchies and principalities scattered through western Europe in the 18th century. For its simple existence, Alpennia makes as much sense as the Duchy of Savoy, straddling the modern border of France and Italy. In fact, the two are technically neighbors, though by the time of my stories, Savoy was part of the Kingdom of Sardinia. But I digress…
Sitting on the intersection of France, Italy, and Switzerland, the recorded history of Alpennia would of course have begun as part of the Roman Empire. There are references to Roman ruins in Daughter of Mystery, and fans of Roman archaeology will be entertained by the discovery of an ancient Roman monument that plays a key role in Floodtide.
As a consequence, Alpennia will have a Romance language, but likely with a Germanic substrate entering during the Migration Era. When I needed to build a “look and feel” for Alpennian names and vocabulary, I wanted something that was recognizably central European but not quite like any existing Romance language. I settled on using the (fairly fragmentary) written records of the Langobardic language as inspiration for the appearance of the language and developed a set of sound-change rules to use in transforming Latin vocabulary and names into early modern Alpennian. Hey, I have a PhD in historical linguistics, don’t think I was going to gloss over this part!
Alpennia sits on the edge of several large-scale cultural patterns. As a vast oversimplification, these patterns include falling on the Catholic side during the Reformation, an emphasis on “honor culture,” and tending to follow southern European marriage patterns.
Not having a direct sea port, I didn’t see Alpennia as participating strongly in colonial expansion (not for any virtuous reason, just lack of opportunity), and their water-based foreign trade is dependent on access to the Mediterranean through French ports. Alpennia’s major river, the Rotein, is a sort of shadow-twin of the Rhône (which might be guessed from its name) and the positioning of the capital of Rotenek is implied to be at the farthest upriver that commercial barge traffic can reliably go. When I first started plot-noodling the seasonal spring floods that give Floodtide its name, I envisioned the snow-melt of a fan of Alpine tributaries hitting the flatter country around Rotenek in potentially disastrous ways. News images of urban flooding in Europe in the last couple decades have been very inspiring for what the results might look like.
The most fun part of developing the physical environment of Alpennia is how the architecture of human spaces reflects the layered history of the country. The heart of the “upper town” (both upper in elevation and as the heart of upper class culture) is the plaza between the palace and the cathedral. But Floodtide centers more around the marketplace between the church of Saint Nikule (the patron of sailors and merchants) and the old river landing–a relic of a time when the shipping trade was no longer in the hands of the merchant families living along the Vezenaf (whose houses are now the most prestigious in the city) but before it moved to the south side of the river where land was less dear. The simple existence of the Nikuleplaiz summarizes the merchant history of the city. I created the remnants of an old public market building there, now only a covered arcade where the charmwives sell hope and magic, and a secular bell tower that chimes for fogs and floods.
I like to find inspiration in the quirks of real spaces that break the illusion of cleanly planned buildings in the past. The charity housing built into the spaces between the buttresses of Saint Nikule’s church are inspired by actual medieval structures of that type still standing around a church in Deventer in the Netherlands, where I was visiting a friend several years ago. I love details that imagination alone couldn’t create–details that reflect the messy and contradictory relationship of people to their surroundings.
We currently have a wealth of resources for envisioning environments of the past, from easy online access to art, texts, and publications, to reconstructed virtual environments. I find these things invaluable in fleshing out the Alpennian landscape, but my heart always goes back to the time I’ve spent traveling and living in older European cities. That sense of place and presence made a big impact on me when I was a ten-year-old California girl traveling to Europe for the first time–the year that inspired my ongoing love of history. Alpennia is my chance to share that love without laying claim to a heritage that doesn’t belong to me.
The streets are a perilous place for a young laundry maid dismissed without a character for indecent acts. Roz knew the end of the path for a country girl alone in the city of Rotenek. A desperate escape in the night brings her to the doorstep of Dominique the dressmaker and the hope of a second chance beyond what she could have imagined. Roz’s apprenticeship with the needle, under the patronage of the royal thaumaturgist, wasn’t supposed to include learning magic, but Celeste, the dressmaker’s daughter, draws Roz into the mysterious world of the charm-wives. When floodwaters and fever sweep through the lower city, Celeste’s magical charms could bring hope and healing to the forgotten poor of Rotenek, but only if Roz can claim the help of some unlikely allies.
Set in the magical early 19th century world of Alpennia, Floodtide tells an independent tale that interweaves with the adventures.
A stand-alone book in the Alpennia series (Alpennia #4)
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.