History is a Fantasy Writer’s Best Friend

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!