Guest Post: Building Up a History

Part one of a short series of posts about the building blocks of writing, deconstructed.

I asked Novice Wordsmith to give me a prompt, with the intention of writing a small story involving said prompt. And that’s a secret lesson; sometimes your inspiration for writing needs a kickstart from somewhere else besides in your own head. It’s not about someone giving you an idea, really, more like striking the match to bring a light to a cluttered room of imagination of your own.
So here’s my assignment: Victorian, Steampunk level,Tea Cartel.
The current monarchy is a tyrant, and has outlawed tea because it poisoned the previous king. Which was his doing. ( Or hers, could be a queen)
How does the tea cartel work, who is in charge, and how long has it been going? Are they the ones who helped poison the last king,and are they in cahoots with the new king/queen?
Softball prompt, really. I love steampunk. If you want to challenge yourself, write in a genre you aren’t good at; if you want to write for enjoyment, write in your comfortable space.  
The meta prompt that comes to mind from this is ‘how do you build a history for a fictional universe?’ It’s very easy (almost cheating) to put together a story in someone else’s world. It’s like building a prefab treehouse in someone’s backyard and not having to go chop wood and weave rope on your own.  
Working with a genre, however, just sets some of the environment variables. (You can tell that I’m a coder, can’t you….)
Steampunk embraces the idea of ‘retro’ tech — big old clunky steam powered, electricity arcing, big brass tubes sorta feel. It’s low tech materials with a higher tech functionality. It’s also considered ‘historical’, because it’s based in our past — usually the Victorian Age of England, where we got a lot of lovely writing, but also the beginnings of big industry and world exploration.
Those are my freebies if I want to accept them. But the parameters of the prompt itself — monarchy by tyranny, ascension by assassination? Those are the ‘must fill in’ items, in order to meet the terms of the challenge.
Today’s post is about building up a history for a fictional world. Because characters do not exist in a vaccuum of empty space; we join them, usually, somewhere towards the early middle of their journey, although a few notable exceptions start at a character’s birth. The rest of the world has been going on about them and around them, and stuff happened before they were born, in order to shape the culture, civilization, and legends — facts of the world as taught to them by others, in other words.
There are two ways to witness history — either ‘get it from others’ or ‘be a part of it.’ A protagonist in these sorts of adventures is going to do something noteworthy, sooner or later; an established adventurer has already done something of worth. An established noble is gifted their place in history by the achievements (inherited or not) of their family.
Being a student of history gives your novel a rising arc. The idea of being nobody-becoming-somebody is the walk of the fame and fortune seeker; the idea of being a someone-becoming-historical is often the tale of a prince/princess or other noble using their resources to achieve something outside of the reach of the common man.
So where does your character’s history come from?
In this case, we have the Tea Covenant – people who know that the previous king was poisoned by tea. We know that tea is important to these people, originally the staple drink of the realm, but now banned.
Some immediate thoughts come to mind; what is drunk in court instead?
Answer: Cappucino. And coffee. And now I’m imagining the new Queen as someone who is very jittery, and jumps at shadows. But she’s also high energy, and brilliant in her own right, but she employs an army of engineers to forge a kingdom that plans to go to war with their neighbors. A military industrial complex.
Let’s say that the former tea fields of the country have been razed and turned into factories. So that any tea that is to be had is either grown in secret, by individuals, or imported from overseas, or stored in warehouses as contraband by the chancellor. There’s a black market for tea…
…okay, I like the phrase ‘there’s a black market for green tea’, because it has some lovely layering of color schemes and ideas in there, so that’s going to appear as part of the narrative early on.
The royalty aspect is a large chunk of the prompt, so we ought to have some connection to the current government, either the ones in power, or the ones deposed.
Playing with someone in the deposed family is kinda tropeish, because then their aim is usually ‘get back in power’. Let’s go with someone less in line with the throne, but someone who is in contact with them. So we can get some glimpses of the crown.
These are things to keep in mind when selecting your stable of characters; we’ll come back to that in a later post. Today we’re just sketching out history; so start by listing significant events. So far we have the following:
– Coronation of the new ruler
– Proclamation of the outlawing of the purchasing and drinking of tea
– Funeral of the old ruler (if there is one)
– Stuff the old ruler did that was noteworthy — maybe he/she held The World Tea Fair
– Ascension to the throne by the deceased ruler – we want to know how long they were in power
– If we’re going to war with the nations next door, how successful were we in the past? So there ought to be some sort of armed conflict in the history books. We don’t own a lot of land from or neighbors, so either they’re friendly, or we couldn’t invade and annex them.
– Invading your neighbors because they grow tea sounds like a crusade.
Now that could happen in any world, but we want Steampunk elements, so let’s not forget scientific advances:
– Phlogiston engine invented. This is fun for me because phlogiston (check Wikipedia if you’re curious) was disproven in our world, but it’s got that steampunky feel when you talk about it. “Don’t burn tea. It has a horrible phlogiston quotient, and people have been known to have respiratory issues and dizzy spells from inhaling tea vapors.”
– Transportation milestones. Let’s make this country landlocked, so the advent of a railway system is how people get rapidly from one end of the country to the other. And we’re going to add some mountains to the south where building over the mountains is prohibitive, but on the other side is a tea-growing flood plain…. so I think I know where we’re invading.
– Airships vs. propeller planes — Another steampunk staple; flight. Putting a steam boiler on either type of conveyance is not terribly feasible, so let’s go with -very- limited flight, which means a flight over the mountains and back is a big exploration event. (And now I have an idea for a pilot character, one who claims his father was the one that took the flight, but he’s being discredited for not really making it all the way over the mountain range since he didn’t actually land.)
– Literacy – is history oral, or written? It’d be interesting to have a contraband book of reading your fortune in tea leaves as a prop item, somewhere in the book, and maybe a secondary character tries that out. But as far as history goes, let’s figure out some noteworthy authors / books in the nation’s history.
– Entertainment — what sort of things do people do when they have cash to burn? Is there a musical stage play that’s been running solid for five years (a record), but has to be edited because the main character drinks tea on stage? Or maybe it isn’t edited, and it’s a scandal that it isn’t…
– Food and Drink — Okay, tea is verboten. But what about tea cakes? Have the biscotti salesmen had a sudden increase in their fortunes? How much food is steamed in a steampunk universe, and what does it taste like? What does the common man eat versus the nobility?
The point is that one approach to building a good novel is to build the world around the characters before you write a single word of dialogue. The world is full of undiscovered things -and- discovered things – if you take a look at the present day, and said, ‘what are five inventions that I wouldn’t be able to do without’, or ‘what are three famous historical events that I know a lot about?’ You would answer something concrete pretty quickly. If you then go and ask people you know the same question, you’ll get different answers — some folks slightly different, others vastly different, depending on their age and background.
When you build a world, it’s all about who lives in it, yes, but where, how, and why they do while they’re living there is also just as important.
Sometimes the best beginning of a novel? Is before the beginning of the novel.

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