Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

14.41: History

Your Hosts: Brandon, Dan, Howard, and Mahtab

Let’s make history! In this episode we talk about doing exactly that—creating real-feeling histories for secondary world settings. We discuss the resources we turn to, the pitfalls we try to avoid, and the places where we think the history has been done really well.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Tell thousands of years of history from the point of view of a tree which has been there for all of it.

Thing of the week: Airborn, by Kenneth Oppel.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key points: Let your characters talk about history. Consider whether the history is continuous (Chinese model) or rise and fall (Roman Empire model). Visit places that are similar to your fantasy world. Only give information that is pertinent, that has a reason, that adds to your story. Make sure the characters are interested, and that it is relevant to the story. Have characters disagree, and have opinions. Use little details to make your reader think there is an entire iceberg underneath. Consider verbal perspective, like the visual perspective of a chalk drawing of a cliff. Drill down deep on some details. Character history? A continuity spreadsheet for events in the universe. Writing YA means characters don’t have a lot of history. Use a character worksheet as a starting point, but don’t expect to really know your characters until the 2nd or 3rd draft. Differing opinions of the same event can make it feel real. 

[Mary Robinette] Season 14, Episode 41.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, History.

[Dan] 15 minutes long.

[Howard] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Mahtab] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] I’m Howard.

[Mahtab] I’m… Mahtab. I was going to say I’m Mary Robinette, but I’m Mahtab.


[Howard] Mary Robinette couldn’t be with us this month… This week.

[Brandon] Well, we’re doing the Utah cast. We like to shake things up. This week, we’re going to talk about history. Actually, next week, we’re going to do the genre of alternate history. We’re going to talk a little bit about that. So we’re going to try to veer away from that this time and focus on creating histories for your characters, for your secondary world fantasies or science fictions, or maybe extrapolating from our history right now to the future.

[Dan] I just realized that given Mary’s known history as a voice actor, there’s going to be a whole conspiracy fan theory that you really are Mary Robinette…


[Dan] Doing an accent.

[Mahtab] Possibly.

[Howard] We’ll post pictures.


[Howard] But that won’t help.

[Brandon] All right. So, let’s talk about secondary world fantasy, building histories for places that didn’t exist.

[Dan] Yes.

[Brandon] Are there any resources you use? How do you start? How do you give a sense that the place has been around a long time? As a new writer, I’ll just preface this by saying, this was really hard for me in my first books. I always felt that this was a big hole in my worldbuilding, that a lot of the great epic fantasies I’d read… You travel through Tolkien’s world, and you get a sense that there are thousands of years of history at every turn and quarter. Where my worlds, it felt like they sprang up… Got built for the set right before the story started, and then the characters act in them, and then they were being wiped away after.

[Dan] Well, one of the things that Tolkien does… I mean, yes, he spent decades of his life building the world before he started writing in it, but beyond that, I think the much more reproducible trick is that everywhere he goes, everyone talks about history. So he’s kind of cheating in that sense. So if your book doesn’t focus on that, then you aren’t going to have that sense. But when they go to Rivendell, when they go to even Laketown, they will talk about how, oh, this used to be this, and then this other thing happened. So you are kind of learning the history as you go. So you can include those details without spending decades of your life building them in advance.

[Howard] There are aspects to our world history that are really fascinating to model yourself, to model your work on. If you compare European history with mainland Chinese history, there is a continuity to Chinese history that none of the architecture… The Chinese people never walked up to a piece of architecture and said, “Where’d this come from?” But in the Middle Ages, in Europe, after the fall of the Roman Empire, 200 years later, we had people looking at aqueducts, people who had no idea how to work stone in that way, looking at these things and saying, “Who built this?” So the European conceit, which I think may be a little closer to what Tolkien was writing, is this sense that civilizations fall and some of them were greater than ours. We had this thing we call the Renaissance, this rebirth. The Chinese didn’t have a Renaissance. The Chinese had a much more linear experience through this. Knowing that, when you are creating secondary world history for your world, allows you to choose. Our my people going to have a continuous history, or is there going to have been a collapse and technology was lost? Simple technologies, stone working, metalworking, whatever. When it is rebuilt, there are ancient puzzles to be solved.

[Dan] That contiguous idea, the more Chinese model, if we’re going to call it that, can be fascinating, and I don’t think it’s done a lot. If you’ve got 2000 years of unbroken history, then this isn’t just the little farm town where you lived, this is the farm town where 20 generations of your family have lived.

[Mahtab] I think even going to certain places that would be similar to your fantasy world would help. For example, Diana Gabaldon, who’s written the Outlander series, she was a great researcher. She started writing the world based on her research from books, but then she eventually did go to Scotland, and viewed the area before she actually wrote down the entire story. There is a time travel involved, but there is a lot of history. So I think she did have a bit of it, but then a lot could be extrapolated. The other one that I really love was done… A fabulous job, and I think you’ll all know him, Patrick Rothfuss with Name of the Wind and Wise Man’s Fear. I mean, it just the way we were given the history of… Is it Shandrian or Chandrian?

[Brandon] I’m not sure. I don’t know that I’ve heard him pronounce it.

[Mahtab] Nor am I. But history, and how it relates to Kvothe and the revenge that he wanted to take for certain things. The way it is built… But we are given that information as needed, at the right time that we need it in the story. I mean, if he had given all the information that is in the second book in the first book, we would probably have been overwhelmed. But the fact is that he’s tilted, and he metes it out as required. You get the feeling that it’s there. I guess the way you do it is you probably allude to it. But if it is not pertinent to the point… To the plot at that point in time, let it go. Let the reader just go along for the ride, and explain it at the time when you need to.

[Brandon] Absolutely. I agree with that 100%. One of the themes I’m noticing here is having reasons, though, to explain it. It works in Name of the Wind because the character’s a storyteller and a bard. His… Telling stories of the past is basically the foundation of his relationship with his parents. With Tolkien, of course, there’s a lot of lore, and characters are very interested in the lore. If this is something you want to do, having a reason, having a character who is interested in architecture, having a character who wants to talk about these things, and then making it relevant to the story. Maybe not to the main plot, but to the story in some way is going to help a lot.

[Dan] One of the other things that Tolkien is doing is he has a big cast of characters from lots of different backgrounds. So you have a chance for the Numernorian Ranger and the man of Rohan to argue over which path they should take. The dwarf has an opinion all his own. They think the other opinion is dumb, and they will give historical reasons. So you get lots of perspectives, which allows you to explain more of what’s going on.

[Brandon] I think this is a very natural thing that human beings do. We like to talk about the past, we like to talk about our heritage. I remember just visiting Charlston for the first time when I was out there to work on the Wheel of Time books, and how multiple people told me we have houses that still have musket balls in them. From the Civil War. Right? Like, you can go and see there’s a whole, there’s a musket ball in there that was fired during the Civil War. That’s like a very big mark of pride. I found it fascinating, right? Being from the West, where everything is a little more new, I love that aspect. I think, like I said, it’s very natural. Those little details… We often talk about how the little details evoke a large picture and a larger story. I tell my students there’s this philosophy that in writing you want to only show the tip of the iceberg, and then have all of this worldbuilding and stuff you’ve done that’s underneath the water that’s supporting it. I tell them that really what you want to do is you want to be able to fool the reader into thinking there’s an entire iceberg down there.

[Howard] I’m going to build a little pile of ice on an ocean colored rubber raft, and I’m going to float it, and I’m going to use smoke and mirrors to make you not look at the raft.

[Brandon] Yup. And see an iceberg instead in the deep.

[Dan] If you want to compare this to visual art, if someone wants to suggest depth, you’ve all seen the pictures of like chalk drawings on the sidewalk that look like you’re standing over a giant cliff. They’re just using little tricks of perspective. So it’s the same amount of total chalk, but it looks like it goes down for hundreds and hundreds of feet. So you can do that same kind of verbal perspective, I guess, and add little tricks into your book like mentioning the ancient king that used to run this or when you give the name of the city, explain where that name came from. Without having to build these hundreds of feet underneath it. You’re just giving the sense of it.

[Mahtab] What I also like, which George R. R. Martin also did, was he was so specific about certain things. I mean, almost going to a depth that I didn’t need. That somehow gave me the impression that he knows so much. He could have… like just maybe the Lannister’s flag, and what they believe, and the Lannisters pay their debts. On certain aspects, he drilled down… Like, on the houses, so deep that it just gave me the impression that he knows a lot.

[Dan] Yes.

[Mahtab] Which without… He may not know a lot, but that is… I’m like, “How on Earth has he done this?” Because my impression in my mind is he knows everything. If he knows so much about one house, he probably knows so much about everyone.

[Dan] One of the reasons that that works so well is because it’s a house. So it’s not as… It doesn’t sound as important as… If he were to give the entire history of the geography or whatever, this is how this land was formed, volcanically. So giving details, tons and tons of detail on something that isn’t necessarily as important… Then we go, “Oh, he knows all this stuff about this one…”

[Mahtab] Exactly.

[Dan] “Little thing, I bet he knows everything.”

[Brandon] Our book of the week this week is Airborn.

[Mahtab] So, this is one of my favorite books by a very well-loved Canadian author. His name is Kenneth Oppel. There are three books in the series. The first one is Airborn which was the Governor General’s winner for 2004. The other books are Starclimber and Skybreaker. So, this is a book that set in an alternate history, of course, Victorian era, where a lot of airships were used for transportation. The story starts with a cabin boy called Matt Cruse, who has lost his father, but he’s really dying to be a pilot, but he comes from the poor classes who… Chances of becoming a pilot are hard. But it’s got a lot of fantasy elements in it. It starts out with him rescuing this person in a balloon. The person actually dies. But he leaves a notebook behind, which is handed over to his family. Three years later, he’s on this trans-oceanic cruiseship, which is called the Aurora. One of the passengers is Kate de Vries, which is basically his love interest, who has that same notebook of the person that he had rescued which talks about cloud cats. Now, this is in the Victorian era, which was mainly a very.male-dominated society. Kate is very forward thinking, she wants to go find them. So there is this adventure going on where they’re attacked by pirates, they crash land on an island, they do see the cloud cats… Spoiler alert, sorry about that. Then it ends on a fabulously dramatic note of them rescuing the ship and he being promoted. This is Matt Cruse. Of course, his adventures continue, with him falling in and out of love with Kate de Vries, who I love, but… It’s the language, it’s the pacing. Kenneth Oppel is just amazing with his plotting, his pacing. He’s done a lot of middle grade and YA, but this is one of his finest. So, Airborn, Kenneth Oppel.

[Brandon] Excellent.

[Dan] Thank you, Mary Robinette, for that… Oh, I mean… Let’s cut that out.

[Howard] Mahtab.

[Dan] Mahtab.

[Howard] This is totally Mahtab.

[Brandon] So. For the second half of this podcast, or the few minutes of the second half we have left, let’s talk about character histories. How do you develop what the history of a given character is before they walk on screen for their first scene? How do you keep track of those notes? How much do you pants, how much do you plan?

[Howard] These days, I have a continuity spreadsheet. Which pins events in my universe and who is affected by those events. When somebody is walking on screen, the first thing I do is I look at the spreadsheet and ask myself, “Where were they when these things are happening? Do I need to worry about it?” If the answer is no, awesome!


[Howard] They walk on screen with whatever information I needed to motivate them for that scene. But if their paths crossed any of those points in the spreadsheet, I have to do more work. Usually that just means I’m not going to put them in the book.


[Dan] Writing so much YA has been nice because the characters don’t have a lot of history.


[Mahtab] They’re much younger.

[Dan] She’s 16 years old, and maybe there’s one or two formative experiences that I have to deal with. But in writing for adults, when I actually have to do this, I often will just make it up. I mean, I tend to be very pantsery anyway. But if there is… If there’s something that relates directly to the plot, then I’ll already know it. If it doesn’t, then it can be whatever I want it to be.

[Mahtab] I actually like to fill up a character worksheet. Depending on whether it’s middle grade or YA, I’ll have a slightly longer worksheet. Some of it is just dealing with the physical appearance, but a lot deals with the character’s motivations, what do they want, what do they need, any secrets that they have, just build upon that. That’s just a starting point, I honestly do not get to know my characters till probably the second or third draft. This is just me putting some stuff down on paper. But it’s a starting point. Just so that I can visualize the character. As I’m writing the story, stuff occurs to me. So the character worksheet is a starting point. Probably the second or third draft is when I really get to know the character. But I have to say, honestly, they’ve never talked back to me or they’ve never taken over the story. It’s like sometimes… Most times, it’s like talking to a teen. Pulling words out of their mouths.


[Mahtab] How do you feel today? Yeah, okay.

[Dan] They refuse to tell you anything.

[Mahtab] So, yeah. It’s a work in progress. But as you do more drafts, you get to know them, and then start building on the areas that you think the story needs the history on.

[Howard] As I’ve gotten older and learned more, one of the things that I’ve learned is that it’s not just that history is written by the victors, it’s that history is read and interpreted differently depending on who’s teaching it, depending on who’s reading it. Nothing makes history in a secondary world feel more real than people having different opinions of the same event. Maybe they are both right. Especially if the event impacted one or more of these characters. Some of my favorite moments in tracking characters through these spreadsheets are when I realized both Alexia Murtaugh and Karl Tagon fought in the same war. Briefly, on opposite sides. At one point, they probably both knew the same person. Out of that grew the bonus story that I put into Schlock Mercenary book 14, which is the two of them talking about this guy who died during the war. Capt. Murtaugh talks about how he’s the reason she was able to switch sides. So it was this intersection of my spreadsheet of history and personal backstories that the story almost told itself. It was a lot of fun. My part told itself.


[Howard] Ben McSweeney had to do all the art.

[Brandon] Dan, you have our homework this week.

[Dan] Yes, I do. What we want you to do is come up with the history of a place. Take like a thousand years worth of history. What wars were fought there, what people lived there? All of these things that happened in this one location. But then, tell that story from the point of view of a tree that has lived that whole time and watched this all happen.

[Brandon] Excellent. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.