Tag Archives: history

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.

Cultural Progression Part 2: Hierarchy of Needs

( As a disclaimer: I have little to no sources cited for this, as it’s mostly my opinion and things I’ve learned in psychology and anthropology classes in the past. Other than proven things, such as the Hierarchy of Needs, none of this is scientific fact, just a stream of consciousness. )

It occurred to me the other day that it’s not just the way that we develop and evolve as a people, but also what our needs become, which seemed to stick out like a sore thumb after re-reading what I’d written.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs directly correlates to what we do as a people. The reason a majority of the civilized nations’ populations are on smartphones and glued to the internet is because of this. It’s what determines how we tackles problems, what’s more important to us, and what’s not.

This is Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, displayed  in a pyramid. 

Most of the developed countries have the first and second one secured by one form or another, unless you’re being tortured or otherwise horribly mistreated. Though I realize that you could go with a less basic view and see it as a psychological safety too, which may or may not be there.

When I thought about it, people in the 11,000 BCE era and backward (and a bit forward) struggled sometimes on the bottom rung of the pyramid. Food was hunted or gathered, winters being the worse for scarce resources, they didn’t have much in the way of healing, and sometimes, more often than not, they were nomadic. Some of their most basic needs were encroached upon by the world around them and the lack of knowledge about the body and what it did or needed.

If we go up, safety was sometimes more infrequent if you consider them being kept from danger completely, but it was not so hard to achieve  for them. Hunter and gatherer people knew how to work together to make the village flourish, from what I can tell, everyone contributed and there was not a total lack of ’employment’ for whatever sense that can be put in. Again, here, the winters are the hardest because they have to live off of the land that cannot provide for them when it’s frozen.

There’s more breakdown than that, but I think you get the picture: that there are things back within the past thousands of years that humanity has been on this earth, that we lack then that we don’t now.

It was something that came to me when I was thinking about ‘normal’ or ‘expected’ behavior of certain individuals in our societies this days as opposed to one hundred or even a thousand years prior. There are things we didn’t know, whether it was how to do it, how to counter it, or how to treat it; we had so many other problems to take care of back so many years ago that we couldn’t focus as much on the frivolity. We were more concerned about the black plague back in medieval times than we were about reading or writing. Learning and education came later when we could handle our health better and knew what was going on around us.

When our scholars learned, we learned as well. And our scholars could only learn if they could live.

Not all of it is about living, though. It was also about keeping ourselves safe and secured, having some kind of work not only to provide for the community we were a part of, but to keep ourselves and our families taken care of. Sex was still mostly about reproduction, but the more we evolved, the more it became about recreation. So the notion of ‘waiting for marriage’ because it was better to have a union established with which to support children, is becoming outdated now because of what we’ve developed in medicine (birth control) and how large our population is now. There is no need to reproduce, is the growing trend, because it’s being replaced instead by a desire to have a family.

Safety, in some countries, is harder to come by than others, where the employment rate and being employed at all is dependent upon how you live. Where capitalism reigns supreme, it’s more difficult to be comfortable. Currency, as I said in the previous post, has evolved to become the trade of choice for how we acquire things. It is our support structure now where livestock and crops and goods like blankets and clothing used to be. When the Native Americans traded with the Europeans for beads and fur, it was because those things would have lasted them, and done very well to provide in a way, that they had high value.

Which reminds me that lobster was once undervalued in comparison to what we see today (HAH, I have a source for that, at least!).

Evolution and development of country and humanity. Whew.

That’s something interesting to do, finding a character that’s seen all of this and writing them through the ages. What have they seen, what kind of loss have they gone through, what has their enormously long life been like through all of these thousands of years?

I sort of let myself get lost in this topic, so apologies to anyone who doesn’t care for it, but I felt the need to share because my head exploded with ideas and thoughts. That it all seemed so obvious after I considered it. All of the religious wars and the high mortality rates and the average death being halved from what it is today, not to mention the way that technology has garnered some flack because of how attached to it we are, even if looking back shows that we’ve done what we can avoid people before.

A love of history also comes in to my writing this. So it’s my inner historian that goes wild at comparisons and the consideration of how we’ve evolved as well as our needs and what we do both for fun and for our well-being.

People who complain about “kids these days,” are more attached to the way things used to be in their day and probably more averse to change, because no matter what century or decade you were born in or live in, things will be forever changing. New things and advancements and experiments are introduced that further our ability to live and do it well.

Speaking of that, it’s been something I think of when it comes to stories that span a society or world or universe of people over a long period of time. You can’t have things be static from one point to the next if it’s over a course of 30 or 40 years, or even just 15 (in the case of one of my novels), because things are always changing. There has to be an obvious point of development. Static makes things easier for you because there may be less to remember, but it’s also difficult to gauge the way the society is progressing.

Evolution is not just physical, it’s not just the difference in gene mutations as we adapt to our world, but the adaptations we make together, in society and with communication, what fits our needs.

Another thing that I was thinking about was the surfacing of terms like ‘transgender’ and ‘pansexual,’ which were on the rise and originated in the 90s. It certainly doesn’t mean that these things didn’t exist back then, hundreds if not thousands of years ago, it just meant that there was less to identify with. The more we learn, the more knowledge we have at our hands to describe and know what we are and what happen with us, the better comfortable we can be with it, if you’re non-binary in gender and sexuality.

Or non-binary in any other way, too. As we develop and learn, the spectrum of which we can identify with grows. Does this mean that those things never existed? Likely not, it just lends to helping us feel more comfortable in our own skin, and to have more to identify with that is acceptable within our societal boundaries.

And on a whole other tangent, what is it really that defines us as being overly offended? What should or shouldn’t we be offended about? Is it the sexist jokes that plenty of people have grown up with being told to them, the gender roles thrown about to shame or humiliate, the plain “jokes” that are about racism and nazis and dead babies and what have you? Or is it smaller things like incidental mistakes and not catering to someone’s whims that really constitute being easily offended?

I could go on for days, probably, about this topic as a whole, which is incredibly broad, when I really think about it. There’s so much to take in about how this whole world works and how it’s changed over the thousands and millions of years, on a basic level and a detailed one.

Thankfully, my huge tangent does apply to writing, especially if you’re building worlds, so it’s not all for naught!

-The Novice Wordsmith


To me, accuracy has always been the end all be all. I grew up not caring about it, but in the past few years, I’ve noticed how important it is. While it goes out the window in movies and shows, there are still those who swear by it.

When you’re writing fiction, the world is in your hands. It is yours to do what you choose with, you create the realism and how things are, you make things the way you see them or how you want them to be. All of that, how the characters react and why, what they say and do and how they move, it’s up to you, but what basis do you go on for what makes it that way?

That was always something difficult for me to remind myself of, especially when writing about something that involves the military. I realized that the type of military was in a totally different universe, so I had the ability to mix and match the values, regulations, rules of any type, all around the world, if I wanted to. There was that level of control. I’m still not finished developing the branch in question, but while I have more friends in the US military, I tend to take from that power the most.

Certain titles and names come from different places around the world, but I’ve used the US system as a base to build up from. On the other hand, I could have made it all up, too, but there should at least be an example that gives you an idea of where to go.

That brings up the question of research, which I shamelessly love.

Writing non-fiction is all about research. It’s digging up links and books and references to the point that you’re making, so much that it becomes countless . It’s the grown version of those papers you did back in high school, in a way.

Research for fiction is different. Writing a police or political thriller, what you find through research can help or hurt where you want to go with the story. It can provide a plot twist or kill an idea and open doors for new ones. Historical fiction, research becomes a little more important.

In conversation with my sister the other night, she mentioned an episode of Doctor Who that had dozens of plot holes, and it was directly tied in to French history. While they have creative license to go about it how they want, there is also a call to keeping things in line, accurate, and making sure things are done correctly. It is the difference between historical while being true to fact, and making up a history on your own. The writer in question did no fact checking, and even came out in saying that he didn’t bother. He just ran with it.

Don’t be intimidated by research. Though it sounds a nasty word, it’s not much more than hitting google and clicking through links that you know or feel are most trustworthy, and there are plenty of resources out there at your disposal.

My friend, after I got into a story about a girl with multiple personality disorder, suggested I talk to a psychologist about case studies on the matter if I wanted to know more. After realizing there was a social worker with a psychology degree at the place I volunteer, I decided to talk to her about the situation, and I got some pretty good information out of it. To my surprise, I was somewhat spot on, but getting a real life example helped a ton.

Other types of research include museums, parks, and going to places in town that have history you’re looking for or writing about. From a guest post, you can find inspiration and information anywhere. Sometimes, it’s right in front of your nose. Even accuracy can be fun!

The devil is in the detail. It all depends on how close you want to be to something, or how you want to portray it.

-The Novice Wordsmith