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.

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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 www.mktod.com.

World Building – Culture & Society

In order to build the world of a novel, authors must consider the culture and society of their story. According to one definition, a culture represents the beliefs and practices of a group, while society represents the people who share those beliefs and practices. 19th century British anthropologist Edward Tylor defines culture with respect to society:

Culture…is that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.

In the fictional world of The Handmaid’s Tale, there is an ultra-parochial regime where women are essentially powerless and yet gather together to celebrate the birthing process or to witness the sexual union of a handmaid with their husbands or to stone a handmaid who is convicted of wrong doing. In that culture, women are obsessed with childbirth, piety and submissiveness. In that society, a handmaid is not known by her name but by the name of her commander. If she fails to reproduce after three attempts, she is banished to the colonies, a radioactive wasteland of endless toil.

Source: https://luciennediver.net/2013/08/14/worldbuilding-workshop-part-i/

The first question to consider is who has power? What is the form of government? Who is privileged? How do gender, religion, race and other factors influence power? Who is struggling against that power structure? Who benefits from maintaining the status quo?

How does government work? Is it a monarchy? A dictatorship? A democracy? What rights do people have? Do those rights vary by some accident of birth or by gender or by wealth? What laws do you need to explain in order for readers to appreciate the difference between that time and today?

Religion is another important factor in society. What role does religion play? What ethics does religion preach? What conflicts sit at the heart of the religion of the day? How do people worship?

Arts and entertainment are also relevant. What types of art influence society? How do people of the time entertain themselves? Are artists–painters, musicians, sculptors, writers–valued or not? How do the arts affect everyday life in different socio-economic spheres? What about sports? Are sports revered? Are leading sports figures influential?

After you’ve considered power, government, religion, arts & entertainment, explore the relations between the dominant society & culture of your story and that of neighbouring societies. Are they at war? Do they trade? Are they suspicious of one another? And remember that there are cultures within cultures – the women’s culture of a harem for example or the culture of the military within broader society.

Look at other elements in the interlocking circles above. They too will add to the richness of the fictional world of history.

According to Lucienne Divers Drivel – the blog of the writer who built the diagram: “Conflict often comes when an individual or group is at odds with or fighting against what are considered the norms of a society or when cultures clash against each other over ideology (religion), control of resources (ecology) or whatever.” That notion offers a seque into another of the seven elements of historical fiction – but more on that later.

The society and culture of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind is totally different from that of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall or Robert Harris’s Pompeii. That’s one of the things readers love about historical fiction.

DON’T MISS OTHER POSTS ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION.  FOLLOW A WRITER OF HISTORY

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 www.mktod.com.

Character in Historical Fiction – a deeper dive

We’ve had two posts about character in historical fiction: The Character-Driven Story (a contribution from Mary F. Burns) and Character – the historical fiction variety. Today, I’m going to further explore character – one of the seven elements of historical fiction – using author Elizabeth George’s character prompt sheet.

In Write Away, Elizabeth George provides the topics she covers in her prompt sheet. A caveat here based on comments received: I’m not advocating this particular prompt sheet, nor am I advocating planning your characters in advance like Elizabeth does. I’m more seat-of-the-pants in terms of my characters. What I am trying to illustrate is the aspects authors can explore to add authenticity to HF characters.

 

It seems to me that many items on Elizabeth’s prompt sheet offer the opportunity for a writer to bring a historical perspective.

Name – what names were popular in the middle ages or the early twentieth century? Of course, location is also a factor.

Height/Weight/Build – these could reflect nutrition of the time as well as social norms. Curviness in a woman might be considered highly attractive in some time periods, so a thin woman might feel unattractive.

Educational background – what were the prevailing norms for education in the historical period of the time? Were girls educated? Were boys expected to leave school at a young age to help support the family? Was an educated woman considered unattractive? Dangerous? Who taught the children? Were boys sent away to school? Were working class children uneducated? Were religious institutions involved in education? Were activists calling for public education?

Sexuality – no doubt there are books written about this! Or PhD theses. Sexual norms could have a critical impact on a character’s behaviour, so it’s important to understand what they were and then choose how they affected your character.

Family – family size, family structure, sibling relationships, family values and expectations all have a historical element. These can feature in a character’s back story, motivations, damaging incidents and so on.

Core need – the single need at the core of who a character is. “We’re born with them and during our lifetimes, we mold most of our behaviour to meet our core need. This is something essential to a person, an automatic striving within him that, when denied, results in whatever constitutes his psychopathology.” — Write Away by Elizabeth George

Some core needs are universal and irrespective of time period. The need to be loved, for example, or the need for a father’s approval. The desire for competence. Others may be influenced by time period or historical events shaping a particular era.

Ambition in life – clearly this needs to reflect historical times rather than modern day times. And similarly take into account a character’s station in life. An 18th century woman would not yearn to be CEO of a major corporation. It’s unlikely that a 12th century peasant would yearn to command an army.

Gait – at first I thought that the way a character walks would not be influenced by history. But what about a geisha? Or the young Queen Victoria who was disciplined to walk in a composed, stately manner even as a child?

Laughs or jeers at – while some of these choices for characters can be universal, others would reflect the historical time period. Men during Oliver Cromwell’s time would laugh at different things or people than men of the early twentieth century.

Philosophy – we can think of this as the guiding principles a character lives by. It defines who we are and what we stand for. One’s philosophy often reflects upbringing, religion, societal values and these, in turn, reflect the times.

All of these and more help transport readers in time and place. In a subsequent post, I’ll look at the rest of the prompt sheet plus some additional items to consider.

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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 Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.