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How to Build your World: History

I know it’s been a while but I am finally back with another article on my World Builder Series.  I will be writing one a month until I’ve completed the series. 🙂

Okay, so let’s get on to today’s topic which is History.

If you missed any of my earlier World Builder articles you can find them here – World Builder series.

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Why is History Important?

Simply put, what happened in the past has effects on the present and future.  History can also be a predictor of the future as patterns and behaviours can emerge.

By being aware of what happened in the past, I’m not just talking about the big things, like war for example, but the smaller things such as the events and reactions that led up to war can be revealing.

Knowing about history gives people a stronger understanding of why things happened and that experience can progress us forward or at least, help us not to repeat devastating mistakes.

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Types of history

Hisory can be broken down into different sections such as:

Military history

The study of the militaries involvement and role in events from the past.  Mostly covering things like armed conflict and the societal and cultural impacts etc.

Government history

The study of a country’s ruling and political systems, who runs it, how it is run and regulated and the changes they put into place that shaped the country.  From monarchs to councils.

Religious history

The study of the religious ideologies and experiences throughout the past.  From their creation, to the belief structures and how it has affected countries and cultures.

I will discuss religion in regards to World Building in a later post

Economic history

The study of economies of the past such as banking systems, commercial systems etc and how they effect the people and institutes.

Land & Natural history

The study of the change in landscape and topography.  From the breaking of land masses, to the devastation of volcano explosions.

Natural disasters can bring about a lot of changes, from shifting animal migrations to destroying crops that force people to relocate.

Maybe a meteor hit and this cataclysmic event caused the destruction of a whole nation of people or was a full-on extinction event.

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Now when you are creating your world’s history, you might find that one or two of these types of history are more prevalent for your story.

Maybe your world was ravished by constant conflict, everything from small civil battles to large-scale wars between countries, in which case your military history may be the most important to focus on.

If your world is mostly governed by a religious hierarchy, then religious history and the key players therein would be the one to focus on.

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Why should you create history?

Your world’s history is technically backstory.  It is the backdrop from which the readers gain colour and flavour within your story.

Even the youngest nation on Earth has a lot of history.  It’s not just about what happened, but what changed because of it.  A story without history is flat.

Imagine your world has a ruling religious hierarchy.  However, hundreds of years previously, the world was ruled by small nations on the different islands.  They each had their own individual cultures and deities.

An uprising occurred where the new religious fanatics managed to overthrow these small nations, drawing everyone in under one banner.  From this, the ruling hierarchy was able to demand tithes as well as utter loyalty from their new subjects.

A cleansing was performed where all temples, shrines and sacred relics of the old cultures were destroyed and replaced with the new religion’s symbolism.

New practices now shape people’s lives.  Before they would openly trade with their neighbours, now there are rules governing which neighbours they may trade with.  There are changes to what can be eaten, what days are celebrated and how long a ruler must stay in power.

Now, your story begins hundreds of years after all this uprising and change occurred.  So why is it important?

Because you can thread information from this past and its influences through your story.  Maybe a character has a fobidden relic from an ancestor.  Maybe there are groups who still practice old magics or rituals even under punishment of death.

Perhaps a new threat is rising, but no one has realised except someone who remembers tales from their great grand parents, of small things that happened before the nations were swept through by war.

Maybe they can see the writing on the wall, whereas others cannot.

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Building your Novel’s History

You can make your history as detailed as you like.  However, like much backstory, a lot of it will not actually get into your novel.

But, if you write a series or a trilogy, then you have more opportunity to include details.

There is also nothing stopping you from creating prequels later on, set in the earlier times to showcase some of this history.

Main History Type

Start by deciding which one or two history types you want to mostly focus on.  Is your world one of conflict?  One of oppression?  One devastated by natural events?

Yes, you can have all these things and more, but remember, you don’t want your readers to have a full detailed history lesson.  So don’t get too overwhelmed, build it all slowly.  However, the bigger and more detailed your world is the more history you will need.

Break it Down

Next, break your history into pieces.  Maybe you want to have Ages – like we have the Stone Age and the Bronze Age etc.

Maybe you want periods like we have the Tudor Period, if you are focusing more on a specific thing like a monarchy’s reign.

Knowing what sort of time frame your history details are going to stretch through will make it easier to create.

In my novel series, Belle Mort (working title) I created several Ages spanning thousands of years as I wanted it known that much of what was happening in the novels, had been years in the making.

I gave each Age a name that corresponded to what major event was happening during that time.  For example, my Age of Bones was a time of great famine and death.

Big events

Decide on your most important events and changes.  Even if your story is focused on one country, one town, one village, you do need to think about your world as a whole.

You also never know if some of these concepts will spark new book ideas within the same world.

Create a Report

This is how I do it, I like to create reports of key events in the history, putting more detail in the more important events.

Things to consider when building your history report:

☆ Ancient History / Recent History ☆

Decide if you want to include deeper, ancient history (eg. Ancient Egyptians) or more recent history (eg. World War II) or both.

It can work quite well having both distant history that is often hard to learn about, possibly destroyed or not well recorded due to the time period as well as more recent history that has a more direct factor on your story.

Geography

Not all things happen the same in different places.  So pick a few locations and write about the history from the viewpoint of people from these places.

☆ The Victors and the Losers ☆

Depending on the type of history you create, for example conflict, colonisation, genocide, ritual sacrifice etc, there will often be those who were victors and those who were losers.

This can be as simple as who won a war to a race of people who wiped out an important animal species that’s disappearance caused widespread issues.

So decide who benefitted from the history arc you are creating.  Remember, the technical victors don’t always benefit.  For example, if there was a war and Side A nation won over Side B nation.

It might be revealed that the actual fighters on Side A, didn’t benefit as much as they had expected to.  Instead royal houses within the Side A faction, were able to claim more land and live in greater luxury while more of their people suffered.

Things are not always so clean cut in history.

☆ Truth and Lies ☆

We’ve all heard the addage “History is written by the victors.”  So, what truths and falsehoods are there in your history.

Was a race of people wiped out due to claims they were invading and destroying other villages?  Was this true?  Or was this a lie by the people who orchestrated their extinction because they wanted their land?

Again, considering who benefits can help to decide what lies are told, what truths are hidden.

☆ Good and Bad in history ☆

When we think of history, we often consider things like wars, plagues, colonisations, religious persecutions.

Remember that history is not just all the inherently bad things that have ever happened.

Consider the more positive or advancing parts of history.  The creation of the wheel, the development of medications, space exploration etc.

So include important landmarks and achievements in your history.  People of distinction and powerful role models.

☆ Point of View ☆

Remember, the same event can be seen differently.  The victors of a war will see it as a great triumph.  Generals who coordinated the battles and captains who led the charge may be seen as heroes and worshipped.

Yet those who were on the losing side, or even those neutral to the war, may remember only the devastation and destruction.  These heroes will be seen as villains, murderers and usurpers.

Even those on the victors side may see things differently.  I’ve touched on this before in my How to Write Battles and Wars article but it is a powerful example: During wartime, women were often forced to ‘service’ fighting men.

They were seen as a “necessary commodity” and their rights were ignored and abused.  They were victims of their own people.  Treated as objects because the soldiers’ needs were considered more important.

These women were often injured, suffered from sexually transmitted diseases and got pregnant.  Do you think they considered the soldiers who treated them this way as heroes?

How about the farmers whose land was destroyed or whose livestock was confiscated for the war with little compensation given?  What about the parents of the young fighters who were drafted in, when they learn of their children’s death… how do they feel about the conflict?

There are many sides to history and how people were treated, their personal experiences along with how they were raised and taught to see the situation will colour the “history”.

After all, historical records were rarely written unbiasedly.

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Effects from History

Not only will there be great changes in population from things like wars and plagues, but events in history can create other effects.

Language

You just have to look at the English language to see some of the effects of historical events.  England had a lot of wars and invasions and this brought with it different languages and dialects that were mixed together.

Boundaries

Boundary lines between towns, villages, cities and even countries can change throughout history.  Lands are invaded, conquered or even broken apart or swallowed by the sea.

Rulers

Events can shape the rulers of a country.  One of the most famous historical events was the French Revolution, the goal of which was to end the absolute monarchy.

Rulers can change from a single ruler to an assembly.  Anything from kings and queens, to presidents, quorums or dictators.  Depending on what happens in your history, there may be a change (good or bad) in who rules the people.

Loss of history

One thing that can sometimes happen, is the loss of history.  Depending on what is happening such as a conflict, a cleansing or even just a great fire, records can be lost or destroyed.

This would mean fragments of history remains only with those who studied it.  Do they hoard their knowledge?  Try and share it?  Re-write it in a more favourable light?

With loss, comes speculation and then history changes based on what people think they remember or what they choose to remember.

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Create a Timeline

Another method is to create a timeline, this allows you to get an overview of the changes that occurred and keep track of all the data.

  • When did that big battle commence?
  • When did it end?
  • What year did the plague start in the western nation?
  • When was the great orator assassinated?
  • When did the northern nation sink into the sea?
  • When did the rebellion start?

Decide on what key events happened and put them in order:

  • When wars, battles, conflicts started and ended
  • Why they were started
  • Key events within larger events
  • Changes that came from events
  • Large effects that came from an event (eg relocation of peoples following war)
  • Date and location of prominent births and deaths
  • Celebration days (often from victories or people’s birthdays)
  • The true events and the falsity that is spread to the populous

Most things end, so if a war started you need to decide when it ends (unless it’s ongoing into the current time period of your novel). 

If a plague happened, when did it end?  Was it due to a medicine being created or the total destruction of all those who carried it?

By laying everything out on a timeline you can see if you have any gaps and if you need to decide things like how the plague was erradicated etc.

I will cover creating a timeline in a later post

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Developing Legends

One thing you might want to consider when creating your history, is the development of legends.

Legends are considered myths cloaked in truth.  What that means, is that often the legend is close to the truth but has been incorrected recorded or the differing viewpoints of those who were there have blurred the edges a bit.

Legends are like whispers, passing from people to people, down through the ages changing and being elaborated on at each telling.

This means something that was normal and real, can gain a twist of mythology to it.

You just have to look at folklore and religion to see where truth and fiction often mix.  Characters and deeds can be true, but have become layered in grand stories to which the truth can be hard to see.

So consider whether any of your historical events will cause legends to crop up.  Does the bravery of one person turn them into a demi-god in legend?

Legends are another great flavour to stories, especially if we see it from two different points of view.  Showing how the same “fact” can get twisted so differently.

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Keep it interesting

I don’t know about you, but when I was learning history in school, our teachers spend a LOT of time on numbers.  Dates of events, number of people involved, king whatsit the nth and all his ancestors that shared the same damn name.

This is not what you want to do.  Yes, some numbers are important, important dates, important years, how long a war lasted (I’m look at you, 100 years war!)

But that should NOT be the main focus of your history details.  It’s backstory for your novel.  It will show how and why people react the way they do, live the way they do, believe what they do.

We don’t need the full military strategy behind the war, but we do need to know that boys as young as 13 were forced to fight.  That your character’s grandmother cherishes the only photo of her brother she has before he returned different from the war.

We need to see the strange side-effects that have travelled down the genetic line of people who were the following generations from those who barely survived a plague.

We need to see the hidden statues that were secreted away of people of influence, who dared to speak up against the oppressors and died for their actions.

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How well do you know the history of your novel’s World?

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Happy writing

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World Builder Series:  How to Build your World:  History. Image from Pixabay

20 comments

  1. Great points! Since I’m using real history as the backdrop for my writing, I feel like I need to know it REALLY well- which is harder than it seemed at first as even different historians have such hugely diverging points of view on the same events…
    Ha! The numbers and dates just suck the life out of learning real history, don’t they? Whether it’s a fictional world or not, in the end, it’s the people that have to move the story, IMO.

    1. Thanks for reading, Anne. Oh my, I stopped being interested in history when they made it ALL about the numbers. When I first learnt about History is was things like the Black Plague and the Great Fire of London and the Monarchs of England…. then it became all about the many MANY wars my country has had and seemed to only be interested in the numbers.

      1. Ha~ Yeah, that seems to happen to a lot of people. I loved teaching doing highschool history during my student teaching because any time I did anything besides lecture the teens were so shocked! 😀

  2. Considering I had very little history when I started working on my project, it grew massively – to the point I have a concept of up to three prequels to show the most important points. Most of it came to be organically when I thought about why did the people end where they are and eventually expanded that question to the whole world.

    Also, very nice overview, I’ll surely return to it a few times 🙂

    1. Oh that is awesome! I always love finding out there are prequels to stories. Especially when the history we read about through a novel is so rich. That is definitely what you want in the writing, strong history that fleshes out so much of the world. 😀

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