Ellis L. Knox is a medieval historian and the author behind the Altearth books – a collection of standalone tales taking place in a fantasy version of medieval Europe. He’s currently working on a story about Emperor Fredrick II.
Q1. Your bio on Goodreads says you’re “a medieval historian who has decided to take apart the Middle Ages and reconstruct them as Altearth.” Before getting into Altearth and your writing, can you tell us a little bit more about yourself?
A1. I really have three identities (none of them are secret identities): historian, writer, and computer tech. They’re related. I have an MA in medieval history and a PhD in early modern history. Once out of school in 1982, I sort of fell into jobs that had a computer aspect to them. This got me eventually to a job as the first computer support tech at Boise State University.
That was where I got my BA, so the faculty knew me. It wasn’t long before I was teaching a Western Civ class on the side as adjunct professor. Meanwhile, the Internet came along and no one was paying much attention to the WWW, and I wound up being the university’s first webmaster.
Along the way, I became fascinated with teaching online, offering full-credit courses as early as 1992 (using the BBS PCBoard). I wound up having classes also on the Crusades, the Reformation, and the late Middle Ages.
During all those years I was kinda sorta writing. Around 2010 I decided to get serious. In 2013 I retired from Boise State University and dove head-first into writing and self-publishing. I’ve yet to come up for air.
Given all that, it just felt natural and right to combine my knowledge of European history with storytelling. I came up with the core concept of Altearth somewhere around 1996.
Q2. Now then, Altearth is your version of the real world in the Middle Ages, but with gnomes and elves and magic thrown into the mix. How much of that world is “real” and what have you added yourself.
A2. As much as I care to add, which means it varies by story. I decided very early that I wasn’t going to try to build out Altearth in advance. I had the core idea that nothing changed until the goblins invaded in the 4th century. The Roman Empire persisted. Beyond that, I would add as many “historical” fantasy elements as felt like they fit.
I’ll give one specific example. In Altearth, magic has a “scientific” explanation, but for many centuries no one understood that. They came up with all sorts of theories, each wrong to varying degrees. As a result, magic in Altearth is unpredictable. Very broadly, people got better at it, but it was hit-and-miss even in later centuries, right up into the late 19th century. This lets me have many magical systems rather than just one.
I didn’t come up with the explanation behind all this for several years. I like to think by not trying to nail down everything in advance, I was able to develop something original. My guiding principle is that I let each story have what it needs, while trying to keep all of them within the general parameters of Altearth.
Q3. What kind of challenges did you encounter during the world building process? What was one of the biggest issues, and what was one of your most elegant solutions?
A3. The biggest challenge is dealing with reality. <grin>
Geography is one. It might sound great not to have to invent an entire geography for a world—I get one ready made—but that brings its own challenges. If I need to get a character from Venice to Prague, that’s going to take a certain number of days. In an invented world, I can get away with just moving the two places closer or further.
Here’s a recent example. I want a magic ring that has a stone in it. As I’m making notes, I think “red jade.”
Now, if I were writing straight fantasy, that would do. Or I could make up some sort of red stone and invent a name. Done and done.
But because Altearth is Earth in most respects, now I have to do a search. Is red jade a thing? Was it available in medieval Europe? If it comes from elsewhere, could I plausibly say it was brought along trade routes?
This isn’t a huge deal, but now multiply that by hundreds. We’re passing through a forest—what sort of flowers grow here? What kind of game gets hunted in Navarre? And so on. I’m inventing a world, but I’m always working within existing parameters, and I try hard to make what’s within those parameters as accurate as possible.
With my current project, I tell the story of Emperor Frederick II. His historical story of how he came to power is really extraordinary. But as I started working up the story I realized that the real Frederick sort of went from victory to victory. He had a few scrapes here and there, but there were almost no setbacks. That’s no good for storytelling! I’ve introduced obstacles, and that means having to mess with the timeline and more. I try to stay close to the original, but the story has to come first.
Q4. Your first Altearth novel, Goblins at The Gates, deals with a goblin horde threatening the Roman Empire. It’s a large scale adventure involving the fate of nations (or Empires, as it were). Your next two novels, A Child of Great Promise and Into the Second World, deal with conflicts on a much more personal scale. Can you tell us a little about that? Your next novel, I believe, is going to be somewhere in between the two – a personal conflict, but where the person will end up being of great historical importance. Do you want to share something about that?
A4. You touch on another aspect of a fantasy world that is alternate history. Do I make up stories or try to adapt real events? A Child of Great Promise came from a premise not anchored in history at all. One day I read the term half-elf and suddenly thought, what’s the other half? From there it was an easy jump to decide the other half wasn’t human. What might it be? And the story just sort of rolled out from there. It could have been set almost anywhere and any when.
On the other hand, Into the Second World was me wanting to re-tell Jules Verne’s classic. I had an Altearth reason for wanting to do that, but really it was just that I thought it would be fun to do a reboot, though it turned out to be more “inspired by” than a reworking of the original.
My current book, The Falconer, stems from my desire to tell Frederick’s story. It’s such a great adventure story, almost outlandish in some respects. I’ve long thought it would make for good fiction. So I’m tackling it.
Q5. It’s not just novels, though? Your website, Altearth – Where magic is real, monsters roam the land, and the Roman Empire never fell, features articles relating to the historical periods of your books, and you’re a contributor to the Mythic Scribes article team, writing about History for Fantasy Writers. You like to share your knowledge of history with the rest of the world. What are your thoughts and feelings about “historical accuracy” in modern fantasy literature?
A5. The website is a middle ground between the stories and my world bible. I don’t put everything there, mainly because I want to keep some aspects flexible. But I did want to have a place where people can read more about Altearth without me putting infodumps or appendices into the books themselves.
As for historical accuracy, I have a simple rule of thumb. If the author is claiming historical accuracy (the author, mind you, not the publicist or fans), then I’ll hold them to it. If the author is using history as inspiration, then they’re free to meddle all they wish, so long as it results in good story.
The best example, imo, is Guy Gavriel Kay. I recently read The Lions of al-Rassan. The story uses medieval Iberia as inspiration, but Kay introduces fairly radical changes and never pretends to be representing actual history. I found some of it a little distracting at first because my brain kept trying to map a place or event to something historical. Eventually, though, the strength of the story crowded out that nonsense and I thoroughly enjoyed the book.
Q6. You’ve chosen to self-publish your books. What made you come to that decision?
A6. I’m old and traditional publishing is too slow. I did begin by writing to agents, but that didn’t last. I calculated the time to get an agent, the time to get a work through the publishing process, the delay in getting it into print, and the costs of marketing. It just didn’t add up. Even if I were successful, I could never have had as many books published as I’ve done through self-publishing.
Over time, I’ve concluded that my genre niche is so narrow, I’d never be above the low rungs of mid-tier at best. This means published and forgotten in traditional publishing. I can’t say I’m published and famous, but at least I can write a book, see it published, and see that at least some people have read and enjoyed it.
Q7. And a few quick questions:
What’s your favourite…
…book, in recent times?
General Fiction: On the Beach, Nevile Shute
History: The Making of the English Working Class, E.P. Thompson
Fantasy: Children of Earth and Sky, Guy Gavriel Kay
…game, in recent times?
Horizon: Zero Dawn
Read lots of advice. Take whatever makes sense to you at the time. Different advice will make sense at different times, so be flexible about this.
…advice for someone who wants to publish their own book?
Finish it. Write all the way to the end, which means edited, proofread, formatted, and either self-published or submitted to agents.
Everything else is optional.
…source of inspiration?
History. Sorry if that’s on the nose for me, but a lifetime of reading history really has provided me with so many story possibilities, I’ll never want for ideas, inspired or otherwise.
…way to clear your mind when everything gets a bit much?
Do something else. Work on something else. Advice I took from years ago from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, by Robert Pirsig.
A8. Well, I hope all my words last!
And thanks so much for offering authors a chance to be interviewed.
Books by Ellis L. Knox
Connect with Ellis L. Knox here: