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Worldbuilding 2.0: Bridging Gaps With Historical Fiction

writing historical fiction blog post messina sicily

Past, future and wistful dreams seem to have little in common, but when it comes to writing fiction, these peas fit snugly in the same pod. So what does historical fiction have in common with sci-fi and fantasy?

Indeed, many an epic fantasy saga has been set in a twin of medieval Europe, but despite the opening credits of Star Wars starting with ‘long ago’, this space opera doesn’t qualify for the ‘historical’ genre label.

So where do these worlds meet? Exactly there: the worlds in which the stories are set.

Building Reality

Readers love to explore a brand-new world, and writers love to cater to that desire. That is easier for some than it is for others. Author of stories in a modern setting have their own challenges, but having to invent a world for their story isn’t one them. Since Walmart doesn’t stock prepped and ready-for use worlds full of magic or spaceships (or both), a genre writer will need to create one.

This ‘worldbuilding’ is a favourite pastime for writers. We draw maps, name the places, devise governments, cultures and belief systems, as well as indigenous flora an fauna. Doing this right is a lot of work. Too much, in some cases. Many a novice fantasy writer has been consumed by ever-refining the intricacies of their world, only to forget to actually write the stories.

Humanity has taken millennia to build our diverse global society. Writers seek to accomplish the same in a few weeks. Small wonder they take their cues from Earth’s reality: we all know (and love) medieval feudal systems and extra-galactic aliens who look remarkably human.

This isn’t laziness, it is sensibility. The human brain rejects what it cannot put into context, meaning that unleashing too much alien-ness on your audience will – what else? –  alienate them. I once experimented with a world where most of our natural laws didn’t apply. Turns out it was impossible to relate to the characters, even for me.

Concluding: building a new reality is more complicated that many would think. But what has this to do with historical fiction set in Earth’s documented past?

A Different World

We humans tend to forget that our world is constantly changing. Today’s children don’t recognise a landline telephone, we can’t imagine what we’d do without cars. If you get ill, they don’t doubt that the doctor will prescribe antibiotics and you’ll get better. Especially younger people have trouble realising how fast things change:

  • As my son grows up today, smartphones are the norm.
  • When I grew up, the concept of Personal Computers first began to catch on.
  • When my father grew up, black-and-white TV was state of the art.
  • When my grandfather grew up, electricity and cars were new inventions.
  • When my grandfather’s father grew up, it was normal that families were big because children as young as the age of four had to work to provide income. Oh, and it was also normal that half of those children died before their fifth birthday.
  • When his grandfather grew up, the Industrial Revolution had yet to begin.

That is 7 generations, roughly 180 years. Yet how different each of those worlds was compared to the next closest. So much of what we consider normal today was inconceivable not even 30 years ago – and that is true for every generation.

History is a whole different world indeed. The further back you go, the more alien it becomes. Yet this is the world that writers of historical fiction must render comprehensible for their readers. And that requires as much worldbuilding as any fantasy land.

Reconstructing History

Whether you describe a Norwegian Ridgeback, the colour of magic or the plants and wildlife of Eurasia during the last Ice Age, a writer has a duty to make their story’s world as tangible as possible. Whoever claimed that reconstructing history was the easiest option ‘because you’ve got all these sources’ was lying through his teeth.

Juggling Sources

When writing historical fiction, research is essential. In order to create a credible version of the world as it existed centuries ago, accurate details go a long way. But research is not beatific: sources are invariably incomplete, inaccurate, biased, disputed or otherwise unreliable. Exaggeration and wilful omission were artforms of human communication well before the written word became commonplace.

In some cases, reliable research is even outright impossible. For the files featured in The Kalbrandt Institute Archives I have interviewed people about their experiences in the Borneo jungle and used my own memories to recreate the mid-1980s. But I cannot interview a 13th century doctor about his medical practices or use Google Streetview to see what Messina, Sicily looked like when he was there.

The only option was to reconstruct parts of the city based on ancient maps, my knowledge of nearby Malta, and googling images of contemporary buildings that survived into our era. As for the events that took place in the autumn of 1347, all I had was a handful of evidently embellished accounts, most of them second-hand.

And that isn’t the only complication.

A Matter of Perspective

To transport the reader into the story, they have to see the story unfold through the eyes of its characters. Characters that view this alien ancient world as the most normal thing in existence. Except…the reader is a modern person with modern views.

That gap has to be bridged. By exposition. The question is: how much?

A fantasy writer expects to have to explain how magic works in her world. But the historical fiction author has to make a best guess as to how much their audience already knows. Will they understand the implication of a particular item or event when the characters mention it, or do they require a bit more explanation? The art of this genre is to err towards the latter without the reader taking note of the extra exposition.

Fact vs Fiction?

Well-researched facts are the supporting structure of historical fiction, but a house is more than a few walls and a roof. Everything between and around that structure is what makes a house a home – or turns a collection of facts into a story.

That is the joy of writing historical fiction: the artistic license you have to fill in the unknown gaps between the facts. Inaccurate or disputed sources can be interpreted as the author sees fit. Or left out altogether, if that serves the story best.

Because the story has to come before everything else. After all, historical fiction is just that: fiction.


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