Narrative Transport. The official Michael Pryor website.

November29th

I visit many schools and libraries, and speak to a lot of young people about books and reading and writing. One of the (many) things I tell them is that history is a fantasy writer’s best friend. As a fantasy writer, I Nom, nom, nomlove what history can offer. As well as simply being interesting in its own right, history is a goldmine for anyone contemplating writing fantasy. Take any period in history, change a few names, sprinkle in some magic and suddenly you have an outline for a massive fantasy trilogy. At least.

While that might be tongue in cheek, learning about history is a superb way to generate ideas for writing. Not just the great people and great events – although that sort of thing is valuable – but intimate details of social history, how people lived and worked and played.

This leads to one of the central paradoxes of writing fantasy. Yes, it’s all made up and imaginary and strange – but it works best when it’s realistic. The aim of the writer of fantasy is to make the exotic into something believable – or plausible, at least.

One key way to do that is to include details of the way people live in your fantasy world, and this is where history helps. If I’m writing in a high fantasy mode, then learning about food preparation in the middle ages gives me plenty of useful details to incorporate into my narrative. Or I might research clothing, or architecture, or medicine from the period. These details all come from an integrated past and bringing them into my fantasy world adds a depth and richness that is precious.

It works in other periods, too. In one ‘Laws of Magic’ scene I was working on, I had a character creeping into a house via a laundry. I had to stop and wonder about what one would find in a laundry in 1910. Coppers? Scrubbing boards? Soap? If so, what sort? Washing machines?

Let me assure you, there no area of history too trivial or too obscure for someone not to have a web page devoted to it. Ah, the wonders of the internet!

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5 Comments

  • Comment by Tarran — November 29, 2011 @ 10:22 am

    A wonderful post Michael!! I know I find history to be a valuable resource for my writing. It is interesting just how much mankind changes year to year, what social structures are about and what they can teach us.

    I know what you mean about there is no such thing too trivial or obscure. I was researching Inns in the medieval period and that got me into what makes an Inn a Inn, Tavern, Pub, Hostel, Hotel etc.. Also learnt that most townships need 1000 people per pub.

    That is my useless knowledge fact for the day lol.

  • Comment by michael — November 29, 2011 @ 10:27 am

    Tarran, research is the home of serendipity. I start off looking for a specific answer, and I get sidetracked into all sorts of wonderful byways that end up being marvellous highlights in what I’m writing. Bliss!

  • Comment by Tarran — November 29, 2011 @ 10:28 am

    * At least 1000 people 😀

  • Comment by michael — November 29, 2011 @ 10:35 am

    BTW, Tarran, when ‘Extinction Gambit’ arrives at your shop, make sure you have a good look at the dedication.

  • Comment by Kathryn — January 7, 2012 @ 1:35 pm

    wonderful article, has me inching to start researching something, anything!

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