Lately I’ve been thinking about the overlaps between historical fiction (my main genre), fantasy, Visionary Fiction, and metaphysical. There is a new term emerging in publishing that describes such overlaps as cross-genre writing or genre-blending. All three of the genres I mentioned are present in the stories I write about ancient Mayas, whose culture blended spirituality with everyday life. Their world-view was a cosmic one, in which movements of planets and stars, sun and moon, deeply influenced lives of humans. The Mayas conceptualized the world in three dimensions—Underworld, Middleworld, Upperworld—connected by a world tree giving shamans access to all. Shaman-rulers journeyed between these dimensions to seek guidance from deities and ancestors, create or break spells, and foresee the future. Underworld Death Lords and Upperworld Star Ancestors interacted with humans; frequently depicted in Mayan art. Mayas invoked potent celestial events, such as Venus rising, to empower them in conflicts. Solar and lunar eclipses were predicted and used to augment the powers of elites and priests.
When writing fiction about indigenous cultures, where is the line between history, fantasy, paranormal, Visionary Fiction, and metaphysical? Ancient belief systems beheld inter-relations between dimensions of reality. Those properly trained could journey to other realms and interact with denizens of other worlds. From a scientific-materialistic view, such happenings are considered hallucinations or an overactive imagination. Indigenous peoples traditionally use mind-altering substances and practices to expand their consciousness, deliberately entering altered states for spiritual purposes. Were their experiences simply over-excited brain neurochemicals, or actual movements into another reality?
Carlos Castenada, in The Teachings of Don Juan: A Yaqui Way of Knowledge, posed this question to Don Juan by asking “Did I really become a crow?” Carlos had experienced flying and seeing below with a crow’s vision. The old teacher in essence replied: “What does it matter?” By asking Carlos revealed his misunderstanding; even though he learned to be a “proper crow” he did not cease to be a man.
What one experiences becomes part of consciousness. Taking a shamanic journey brings information, knowledge not obtainable otherwise. This remains true whether the journeyer actually “goes somewhere” or not. In this light, let’s consider the question of what is historical, what is fantasy, and what is metaphysical in the art of writing fiction.
Cross-genre fiction is an emerging phenomenon with long roots. Traditionally, genre fiction means books that fit neatly into a single prescribed category: literary fiction, science fiction, romance, mystery, fantasy, horror, historical, western, etc. Publishers, agents, and bookstores want to know what genre your book fits so they can find its niche. But, just take a look at any bookshelf today and you’ll see how much the lines are blurred. Well-known contemporary writers openly declare their books cross genres. Dean Koontz, usually considered a writer of horror, says: “I write cross-genre books-suspense mixed with love story, with humor, sometimes with two tablespoons of science fiction, sometimes with a pinch of horror…”
Romantic fantasy is a common cross-genre example, its key features involving the focus on relationships, social, political, and romantic elements. Romantic fantasy is published by both fantasy and romance presses. Mercedes Lackey’s “Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms” series and Tamora Pierce’s “The Immortals” quartet are successful examples. Romance is combined with suspense/thriller/mystery genres, often garnering wide readership. Bestseller list regular Sandra Brown has written dozens of romantic suspense novels, including The Alibi, The Crush and Low Pressure. She is so successful in cross-genres that Brown has received both the Romance Writers of America Lifetime Achievement Award and the International Thriller Writers’ top designation of ThrillerMaster.
The combination of historical and fantasy fiction has a long history. Tales of heroic exploits overcoming monsters and demons harks back to Greek literature, and the Romans were quite “superstitious” believing the Gods influenced everything. Take a close look at Shakespeare, and you’ll find a blend of history and fantasy with ample episodes full of ghosts and paranormal happenings. Current historically-infused fantasy includes Ellen Kushner and Delia Sherman’s The Fall of the Kings, Daniel Abraham’s The Long Price Quartet, and Sarah Monette’s Doctrine of Labyrinths. Such novels create a secondary fantasy world informed by a real understanding of actual history. Barnes & Noble lists historical fiction novels that are “almost fantasy” including The Cousins War series by Philippa Gregory (The White Queen), The Warlord series by Bernard Cornwell (The Winter King), and I, Claudius by Robert Graves.
Novels set in indigenous cultures form a unique type of cross-genre fiction. The reality of ancient Mayan and Native American life incorporated metaphysical experiences. Their elders and shamans had “paranormal” abilities. The denizens of their Underworld and multi-dimensional universe were fantastical creatures, often combining human and animal or insect features with uncanny abilities. When writing “historical” fiction using these elements as natural parts of the culture, there is an inevitable overlap into what is considered “fantasy.” Pure fantasy, however, creates a world that does not exist. Perhaps a better designation would be “fantastical historical” fiction.
Visionary Fiction encompasses these elements perfectly, having stories infused with spiritual and metaphysical themes. The significance of places as energy vortexes, such as sacred sites and portals that shape and transform characters, are key elements. Extraordinary experiences bring about shifts of consciousness, both for characters in the story and for readers. Visionary Fiction is by its nature cross-genre, allowing writers to celebrate the richness of a wide palate in creative writing.