Lost in History

So on February 25th I wrote about the basics of developing world history. I didn’t talk too much about how to decide just how much world history to create. In that post I gave examples of what types of events you might want to incorporate into your world’s history. Which is great. Having ideas can kick-start your world history development. But it’s also incredibly easy to get lost in that same history.

With many world building projects, you need to know when to stop. Sure, you can know the exact skeletal and muscular make-up of every single creature unique to your story, and you can know every little detail about the created plants, poisons, diseases, technologies, etc. etc. etc. If you let yourself get carried away you are never going to get any work done on your actual story.

But don’t let this scare you off of world building!

Now, today I’m specifically going to talk about how to avoid getting lost in history world building. But you should be able to use some of this to help with other areas.

The first thing I want you to do is create an outline of your story. It doesn’t need to be anything fancy. In fact, if it takes you more than 5 minutes to write then you are putting too much detail into it. I’m going to use the outline for Legend’s Legacy for this tutorial, but very general. (Last of two feuding families have to form a truce, travel to an oracle, learn to trust/respect each other) This story is a historical fantasy, but that doesn’t mean I don’t need to come up with a world history.

Once you have your outline, you need to break it up into sections. Not sections based on the order of events, but sections based on the types of history you need to develop.

  • Character history
  • Physical history
  • Religious/mythic history
  • Technological history

Based on the sentence fragment outline I gave above, you can probably only see where the character and religious/mythic history is needed. Any story involving travel (and even many that don’t) will need some level of physical history, and based on the period in which the story is set, I know that I need technological as well. So be aware of other areas that are not immediately obvious based on your outline. (For example, medical history, political history, artistic history, etc.)

Character History: this is a timeline or brief description of a character’s personal and family history. Important events that happened to key ancestors as well as to the character directly are what are wanted here.

Physical History: this can be parallel to, or even part of other forms of history. For this instance, it refers to what lands were referred to at very points, as well as who was in control of those lands (i.e., I made note of what the different parts of Italy and Greece were called through the last twenty years of the 15th century).

Religious/Mythic History: this is especially important when one religion replaces another. It’s important to know what aspects of the old/original religion have carried over into the new, and what aspects are now viewed as evil, blasphemous, or otherwise to be avoided.

Technological History: specifically I made note of the progression from swords and bows to guns for combat purposes.

In all of the above cases, it can be easy to get lost in the little details. Is it important to note that Character A broke her arm when she was six? Or how about that Character B watched his father die at the age of twelve? Should I make note of the fact that the Tudor dynasty was established by Henry VII in 1485? What about the fact that Methoni was under Venetian control until 1490? Is it important that the Ottoman Empire restricted the rights of Christians? Does it matter that guns were matchlocks instead of wheelocks at this time?

(Not really, Yes, No, Yes, Sort of yes, Yes)

When developing character backstory/history, the important parts to make note of are those that made the character who they are when the story starts. Additionally, for characters who are somehow entwined before the story starts, you need to make note of important times when their individual histories crossed. For Legend’s Legacy this includes some instances when their ancestors interacted. Anything else is flavour text, and generally (but not always) ends up being unnecessary detail.

Due to the historical fantasy nature of this story, and when it was set, I did a lot of research about what was going on at the end of the 15th century. But that doesn’t mean I really took note of (or cared) about what was happening in England. My story occurs in Italy and Greece, so I focused on the happenings in and around the Mediterranean. While the Granada War took place right around the time that the story is set, it doesn’t directly impact the story at all. But (!!) it’s good to note that it was happening, as it adds to the overall feel of the era. This was not a time of peace and stability. Everywhere was affected by war and religious struggles.

Which, of course, leads into the next category. Knowing that the Islamic system of the Ottoman Empire technically allowed Christianity, but actually relegated Christians to second-class citizens means that for the characters to celebrate a Christian holiday, they have to be outside of the Ottoman Empire. Plus, it’s important to know that the book that started the witch burning craze would have just been recently published, and despite official statements denouncing it, the book was very popular among the common folk.

Knowing that guns were muzzle-loaded matchlock weapons at this time period helps to keep readers from getting confused about the setting of the story. I don’t need to know how wheelock pistols work, or when guns transitioned from muzzle-loading to the more modern form. I don’t even need to know the specifics of how matchlock guns work -I just need to know enough that I can accurately convey how the weapon would have looked, sounded, and felt so that the proper feel of the time period is maintained.

Can you see where I held back, and where I jumped in? No?

To make it simpler, at every step I want you to ask yourself -is this directly relevant to my story?

If the answer is no, you need to ask yourself if it is indirectly relevant (e.g., important to a later book; hints at the twist ending; or directly contributes to something else that is directly relevant to the story). If no, then you don’t need it.

As you research and/or develop, pay attention to those things which would make the story as planned more difficult to execute. (e.g., the Ottoman Empire’s discrimination against Christians I mentioned above) Rather than struggling to find/develop further information so you can proceed as planned -take the opportunity to tweak your story instead. It’s probably going to be simpler in the long run. Plus, I know that as a reader I prefer simple explanations over complicated ones.

Finally, I want to point out that my historical fantasy novel really only required about 50 years worth of history (except for a few details, specifically character based). Partly, this is because this was a period when things changed rapidly, and partly because other than for a few details, the story isn’t impacted much by events that occur prior to its start.

So just remember, when you are developing or researching world history, you don’t need a textbook or encyclopedia’s worth of information to make a story feel alive.


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