02 May 2013

Some Thoughts on "Cosplay" Fiction

by Brian Thornton

Eve Fischer, with whom I alternate Thursday entries in this blog, and I share several things in common. For starters, we've both published short stories with (among other venues) Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine (her stuff is better, though), we both are fascinated by larger-than-life characters who spring from the pages of history (like this globe-trotting rascal). And we're both professionally-trained historians (She's got a PhD., while I putter along armed with a mere M.A.) who write historical mystery. If you've not read her latest post about the Antikythera computer and her take on why we do (and should) study the past, give it a look here.

Eve concludes this terrific post with an examination of two distinct types of biases that people down through the ages have used to ignore the past: the first (often held by the young) is that history is irrelevant and has nothing to teach us, because, after all, if ancient people were so valuable to society as a whole, why didn't they invent a better mousetrap? The second is the rose-colored glasses view, where "everything just made so much more sense, back in (insert fondly remembered decade here)."

Pretty astute, my colleague from the Dakotas.

Reading her post got me to thinking about historical fiction and those who write and read it. Historical fiction (and by association its combination cross-genre/sub-genre historical mystery) is supposed to be at least somewhat rooted in fact. That separates it from other genres such as literary, sci-fi, fantasy, romance, and so on. And while it's possible to play fast and loose with the details (something every writer of historical fiction does to a greater or lesser extent), if you stray too far from the customs/events, etc., contained within the historical context, you're not writing historical fiction, you're writing a type of speculative fiction known as "alternate history" (like Harry Turtledove), or, if you go even further off the beaten path, steampunk.

I've read and enjoyed examples from both of the genres listed above. What's more, I certainly enjoy creative takes on existing subjects, otherwise I wouldn't have spent so much time writing and reading historical mystery lo these many years. And when it comes to respecting the work of writers in other genres, I yield to no one in my admiration for the professionalism, hard work and dedication of folks who write romance, be it contemporary or of the historical variety (and anyone who looks down thier nose at romance writers and is a fool. These folks are the very definition of "pros." AND they're usually the hardest-working people you'll find at any gathering of writers from the various genres).

That said, there is a particular variety of "historical mystery" that absolutely drives me up a tree.

I'm talking about what I call "anachronistic historical fiction."

Is "anachronstic historical fiction" contradiction in terms?


But that's because the stuff I'm talking about, which, admittedly is incredibly popular and sellssellssells, is not really historical mystery.

So why not call it what it is? To borrow a phrase that has recently popped up in the geek world: let's call it "cosplay" (short for "costume play").

 This type of "historical" usually involves characters with refreshingly (and familiarly) modern attitudes, displaying them in times/situations that, if this were historical fact instead of historical fiction, would have gotten the people displaying said modern sensibilities, hung, shot, drawn and quartered, excomunicated, burned at the stake, or worse.

But the cosplay world in publishing these days seems to be a largely reality-free zone.

Let me give you an example (and since I'm not interested in picking on anyone in particular, it'll be a general one). In, say, early 19th century London, a plucky female protagonist stumbles across a dead body in her family's garden and decides to solve the mystery surrounding the person's death.

Well and good. You have my attention.

Now, let's say that this heroine strikes out alone, in the dead of night, to "interview" the street sweeper who was the last person to have a drink with the dead man in her garden. Big deal, you say.

Well, yes, it is. A small but important point- up until just a few years ago it was considered at the least bad form for a woman to go out unescorted in most European societies, and especially at night.

"But," you say, "this heroine is plucky!"

"And stupid," would be my reply. Big cities tended to be neither particularly clean, nor particularly safe during the period in question. A woman out unescorted during this time would have been considered fair game by some of the rougher element and deserving of whatever trouble came her way by most of the rest of society.

Now an occurrence like this placed in a story by the hand of a historical fiction master such as Ruth Downie, Jenny White, Iain Pears, Jason GoodwinMax ByrdSusanne Alleyn (whose book about people screwing up history can be found here and is not to be missed!), Kenneth Cameron or a host of others, would no doubt be a large and important part of the plot. Great writers such as those listed above can take an otherwise unbelievable occurrence and wordsmith it to the point where it's believable.

That's not what I'm talking about here.

What I'm getting at is that this is the sort of pretty anachronistic occurrence that gets thrown into cosplay fiction on a fairly regular basis. And usually without seeming remarkable to either the author or the character in question.

And then there's the language.

Which will be the subject of my next post!


  1. Good one, Brian. I knew where you were going before you got the and was nodding with enthusiasm. And cosplay fiction is the perfect name for it.

    By the way, I love Harry Turtledove, especially The Guns of the South.

  2. I think you've coined a new term. Cosplay fiction. Love it.

  3. Cosplay . . . love it. And thanks for the mention!

  4. Been reading a lot in the science fiction arena about cosplay at SF&F conventions. Apparently certain attendees believe that because other attendees dress in costume, they're inviting sexual advances. Complaints from men in kilts, women in Laura Croft, and so forth.

  5. Great article, Brian! And thanks for the compliments - though in the interests of accuracy, I don't have a Ph.D., just an M.A. (lucky re employment many years ago).

    I agree re cosplay - and a great name. I used to divide my classes according to birth order, and 2/3 of them would end up assigned to monasteries or some such unappealing (to them) fate. The usual reaction - "Oh, I'll just run away". "Great; and you'll be caught, flogged bloody, imprisoned on bread and water until you learn your place." "I'll break out and run away again." "Then you'll be caught - again - and executed. Nastily." They really didn't like that version of the past at all...

    Susanne, I'm going to have to read your book! And when's yours coming out, Brian?

  6. Oh, the above Anonymous is Eve Fisher, o n vacation...

  7. Oh, and Brian - your work is just as fine, if not finer, than mine.

  8. Rob- agree on Turtledove. I really liked his "Agent of Byzantium" alternate history stuff.

    Jeff- I can't take credit for doing anything more than lifting "cosplay" from the geek world, and applying it here.

    Susanne- you're welcome. I'm thinking MEDIEVAL UNDERPANTS is gonna be a good seller for you for a long time!

    Suzanne- I can believe that. I went to a local con a few years ago, and in attendance there was a six-foot tall, athletic brunette (even had blue eyes) was dressed *exactly* like Xena Warrior Princess. I'm sure she received her share of unwanted attention, although it was in Seattle, so people tend to be more polite/indirect/aloof.

    And Eve- LOVE the 2/3 thing and your replies when they said they would simply run away. And good for you actually leveraging an M.A. into a full time college teaching gig! As for my novel, I'm hoping to wrap it this summer and start another (next in the series, something completely different, not sure yet, already journaling about it though). I've got a short novella (novelette?) coming out soon from a quarterly though. Will keep you apprised.

    Thanks to all who chimed in!


  9. Cosplay, eh? Fabulous term for a type of fiction that drives me to throw a book against the wall--I may not always catch a historical factoid (although reading MEDIEVAL UNDERPANTS means I catch more than I used to when reading older/non-European time frames), but I'll catch 20/21st century characters garbed in period clothing no matter what kind of underwear they have on LOL.

    Luckily with e-reads I can just delete, post a somewhat less-than-stellar but honest review, and move on, saving my precious shelf space for authors like Suzanne/Susanne, and many authors at Crime Thru Time (an excellent resource for historical mysteries).

    Thanks for a great post!


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