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.

World Building – a look at geography

I found an interesting article on world building at Well-Storied, which is run by Kristen Kieffer, a fantasy fiction writer. Keiffer breaks world building into geography, cultures, social classes, history, technology, and because it’s for fantasy writers, magic. Today, I’m looking at geography.

If you’re like me, geography is something you last actively considered in high school. It was never one of my favourite subjects and I had trouble fitting the pieces together into a meaningful whole. However, writing historical fiction demands that I bring geography into my novels as part of transporting readers in time and place – in other words, as part of building that historical world.

In essence, geography is the details of the physical world of your story – landscape, terrain, weather, borders, significant landmarks such as rivers, forests, mountains and plateaus, the natural resources that support the population, the sources of water available, and the climate.

According to National Geographic, “geography is the study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.” It’s an examination of “how human culture interacts with the natural environment, and the way that locations and places can have an impact on people.” The people, culture, politics, settlements, plants, landforms, and other aspects of an historical world are influenced by its geography.

Source Wikipedia – 1870 Map of Paris by Eugene Deschamps

What is Paris without the serpentine sweep of the Seine and its ultimate link with the sea? What is Scotland without its rugged mountains to the north and its lowlands to the south? What is South Carolina without its shoreline of beaches and its marsh-like sea islands? What is India without its monsoons and the staggering diversity of its landscape?

The Seine plays a role in my soon-to-be-published novel Paris in Ruins as do the bridges that cross it, the children who fished along its banks, and the boats that traveled along it bringing wounded soldiers back from the battlefield. Montmartre, a hill in the northern part of Paris that was once home to a small village outside the city’s walls is also featured. Camille Noisette, one of two main characters, walks that hill to spy on a radical group calling for the overthrow of the government. It’s a long climb that culminates in cobbled streets and narrow alleyways that twist and turn to accommodate the hill’s incline.

Climate is another part of geography. Is your world temperate or seasonal? Are the winters mild or long and dark? Is the sun bright and hot at midday? Does little grow in the rock-strewn land or is there an abundance of farmland to nourish people and animals alike? Do Horse Chestnut trees flower in April or does jasmine scent the air from late spring to summer?

The places where our ancestors settled and the way they lived were strongly influenced by the elements of geography. When geography is brought subtly into an historical novel, readers will be more deeply transported to another time and place.

More on world building in another post.

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.