World building – a look at history

Kristen Kieffer, the author of an excellent article on world building, says: “The present is nothing without the past. To lend your world a sense of depth and realism, consider developing historical events that continue to impact the world in which your characters live.”

Kristen is referring to fantasy worlds where an author can create whatever history he/she wants. For those writing historical fiction, we have oodles of historical events to choose from, and I believe our challenge is to choose the historical events that are of critical importance to the ‘now’ of our novels and to shaping compelling character arcs and plot lines.

A timeline for WWI I discovered some years ago

Ask yourself what are the power shifts – social, political, or religious – that have a dramatic impact? What are the traumatic events – battles, deaths, famines, executions, trials, invasions, marriages, and so on – that affect your characters and your timeline?

In my soon-to-release Paris In Ruins, one traumatic event is the abdication of Napoleon III that sets the stage for the siege of Paris and its consequences. Of additional significance are the revolutions – one might call them attempted revolutions for they didn’t last – of 1830 and 1848. The abdication leads to a political power shift from an emperor to a republican form of government. This shift opens a fissure through which radical forces can undermine the new government.

In Janie Chang’s The Library of Legends, it’s the Japanese invasion of China and the bombing of Nanking, that set the story in motion and create drama and conflict between conqueror and conquered. In Paula McLain’s Love and Ruin, it’s the Spanish Civil War that provides the context and action for Martha Gellhorn and Ernest Hemingway to meet and fall in love. In Kristin Hannah’s The Four Winds, it’s the Great Depression. In Margaret Mitchell’s famous Gone With the Wind, it’s the American Civil War and the power shift between north and south, slave and slave owner that drive the story.

These traumatic, life-shattering events provide the fuel for characters’ emotions, decisions, and actions. As Hilary Mantel said in an interview on my blog: “I don’t twist the truth to fit the story, but try to find the dramatic shape in real events.” I’ve subsequently referred to Mantel’s concept as the dramatic arc of historical events – find that dramatic arc and a story gains a powerful dynamic.

Historical fiction authors don’t have to invent history, they just have to choose the right historical events – both large and small – for their stories.


M.K. Tod writes historical fiction. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from AmazonNookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on FacebookTwitter and Goodreads or on her website

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