Yep, it is possible to have realistic fantasy. I don’t refer to magical realism, although that is a wonderful subgenre and worthy of a higher profile than it has. I mean, put so many durn concrete details into a scene that it feels like reality. Turn the environment into a character. Let the reader know how it looks, smells, feels and sounds. You may be pushing it if you describe how it tastes. Best leave that for food and drink, unless your character has a habit of eating rocks.
The writers of urban fantasy do this the best. Their settings are the modern world as we know it: the cracked sidewalks and fizzing lamps of the inner city, the overquaint cleanliness of gentrified neighborhoods, the sprawling sameness of suburban apartment complexes. They just don’t say Joe had a beer and drove home. They say Joe had a Budweiser at the Loophole and drove his 1989 Ford Bronco II back to Idlewild where he collapsed on his futon. Kinda sounds like our world doesn’t it? Bored now! But just as the reader begins to be bored with all the details of his own life spread out on the pages before him, enter the wizard private investigator chasing down the werewolf that’s baffling the police!
The end result is the fantastic elements stand out in even sharper relief. Most of us would like an escape from the dull mundanity of our environments, if not our own lives. The more real the fictional environment, the more like our own, the more we relish those fantastic elements that we wish happened in our own lives. Most of us would like to know that there’s a monster out there that isn’t elected. Most of us would like to know we had the power to change our worlds for the better. That’s why most of us read fiction. If we didn’t want that, we’d stick to the newspaper.
This works in other genres as well. I’ve seen it work well in horror and mystery. The science fiction and historical people have it down to an art. It’s sometimes called the Fleming Effect, after Ian Fleming’s penchant for describing every piece of machinery, how it worked, how it disassembled, who all owned it, and just what James Bond planned to do with it, or to it. We can smell the machine oil in that Walther PPK of his, and the diesel fumes coming from the engine of the Disco Volante. Somehow, that makes it easier to believe that this medium grade civil servant can save the world yet again.
Details of that variety help make the fantasy a little more plausible. And here, I mean the fantasy of fiction, not specifically my genre.
It isn’t quite so easy if you’re writing something like I’m writing. My novel is set in England in AD 1051. That is 1,000 years ago. No product names to litter around. However, I can try to be as faithful to the landscape and history as possible. I’m trying to use the right names for the birds, flowers and trees, describe villages based on photographs that are close to the era, describe the clothing that Saxons wore then, and get their lifestyles right. The protagonist can wear boots, but she cannot just go into a store and buy a pair. They have to be custom made. She can have a cat, but that cat cannot be a Maine Coon (not for another 900 years). She can carry a sword, but it should be three to four feet long, not one of the big five foot Crusader two-handers. She cannot possibly see Glastonbury Tor from a distance of twelve miles away, when the human eye can only see three miles before the horizon interferes.
That said, I’m not willing to sacrifice a good story for the sake of historical accuracy. I’m fudging the villages where the magical minded people live, making them a little more like 13th century towns. But I also explain that — these people are more cosmopolitan minded and have stronger contacts with the continent than the civilians do, so their lifestyles will be a little more advanced. There, plausible enough.
And some things I have to make up. While similar attire was worn at the time and earlier, especially in the Mediteranean areas, there is no concept in Saxon English, Nordic, Gaelic, German or French for the bikini! “Looks like something a Pict would have worn 600 years ago” is about as close as I can get. But that does help further ground the story. “She put on her clothes” is just too abstract and obscure. It could mean anything. The more the reader can see it, the more realistic the story will seem, and the more the fantasy will jump off the pages.
And that is the whole idea.