7 Tips to Write Better Fantasy with History
So you think you have an original fantasy world? That may be so, but creating something from nothing is nearly impossible. Much of what we create is repackaged. We borrow. We polish. We add a flame. Some of the greatest writers borrow from history to create their fantasy worlds. And more are doing so with a desire to branch out of the European Fantasy trope that’s long dominated the fantasy world. Let’s take a look at a few famous fantasy worlds based on real historic events or places:
Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo – 17thcentury Amsterdam
Lord of the Rings by Tolkien– Rohan is the epitome of Anglo-Saxon England
Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin–based on historical events like the Wars of the Roses and the Glencoe Massacre, etc.
An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir – Ancient Rome
All of these are Fantasy novels, not Historical Fantasy even though they are inspired by real history. I mean Amsterdam and Ketterdam are pretty close! The degree to which history inspires the worldbuilding varies with each of these examples. The worlds are more rich and alive when based on something real whether it be a place, a battle, a character, or a culture. But in order to write Fantasy well (and know where history fits in) you must first decide on the base for your fantasy world:
- Imaginative World (General Fantasy) – An Ember in the Ashes (What if I invent my own world?)
- Alternate World (General Fantasy) – Harry Potter (What if England had witches?)
- Real-World (Historical Fantasy) – Temeraire by Naomi Novik (What if Napoleon had dragons!)
The degree of association with the real-world increases with each category, as does the need for historical research. What separates Historical Fantasy, such as Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, is the perfect blend of real history and the fantastical. Historical Fantasy is set solidly in a real-world setting with historic characters of significance and in real time, but with a touch of the supernatural. Fantasy inspired by history is simply fantasy with a rich world informed by aspects of history. But regardless of your fantasy subgenre, I would argue that it’s never too late to be a history buff! Now that you’ve seen some amazing novels inspired by history, here are some tips to improve your fantasy writing with history:
- Characters NOT Caricatures: Some AMAZING characters have been plucked from the pages of history. Lady Eboushi from Princess Mononoke, Alice from Alice in Wonderland, Indiana Jones was based on Hiram Bingham III, and Severus Snape. The list goes on to prove that history can inspire great characters. But unfortunately, it can also result in caricatures. If you are going to reinvent someone from the pages of history be sure to do so with respect and make it your own.
- Startling Events: History is full of the weird and wonderful, the beautiful and the cruel. Did you know that human pillars were used to build bridges in some places? Or that there was a nerdy botanist who joined a rebellion and fell into a tragic love story? How about the secret life of the man who invented the tea party? History is a wonderful playground for the imagination.
- Worldbuilding: History provides ancient maps, languages, artifacts, culture, and myth. A rich well of inspiration for the fantasy world. Myth is most often the one writers pull from when researching as its closely related to fantasy. But consider that back then it was believed to be real. How did this change the way people acted? What system of law did people adhere to? Also, magic is in the history books. People have already created whole worlds built on magic systems. Use them to dream and build your own magical world. Dig deep to imagine the day-to-day of your fantasy landscape. And when drawing inspiration from real-world cultures, past or present, please do so respectfully and with care.
- Go on Tour: Explore old houses and historic places for inspiration. It doesn’t need to be fancy. You can visit local sites, graveyards, museums, anything that sparks of history! I’ve found weapons that traveled the globe, baby shoes made of glass, and mossed-covered books that begged whole stories to be written about them. Explore history in tangible ways by visiting places and ask questions.
- Read nonfiction: Biographies are a favorite pastime of mine. I find the most unusual stories and observations from minds long since passed. People who saw sea dragons in Meiji era Japan, the woman whose carriage lost a wheel in a thunderstorm, the little girl who couldn’t walk but changed lives by growing flowers. Lost and forgotten stories from otherwise ‘boring’ biographies. Read the information plaques at the historic sites you visit, read the small print for names and notes. You’ll be surprised at the treasures you find.
- Lists: I’m a sucker for details. I have a list of plant species in my fantasy world based on real plants in Hokkaido, Japan. A list of the smells in different seasons, the types of fish people caught. Makes lists from history and then use those details to create a real and palatable world.
- Make it Yours: Let history be your sandbox. Play in it. Roll ideas around and make roads to new places. Write your story and use the pages of history to bring it to life in the best ways.
Ellen, signing off!
*I just joined IG, so if you hung out there come find me!