It is a telling fact that Herodotus, founding father of western historiography, saw himself as carrying on the work of Homer, the great epic poet. Herodotus himself has often been accused of being better at spinning a yarn than at getting his facts right, and Homer tells us quite a lot about the real warlords and merchants of his day through his stories of epic battles and heroic wanderings. Fiction and history have always sat at the same table. As a professional historian and an amateur writer, I’ve spent plenty of time thinking about how the two go together.
Writing fiction means imagining people and worlds that do not exist. That, in its essence, is also what the study of history is about. Now, historians must keep our imaginations grounded in testable evidence and rational argument, but all those facts add up to nothing without imagination. We will never shadow the emperor’s agents as they crept the back streets of Rome sniffing out agitators, or break bread with a gang of workers in the shadow of a half-built pyramid and listen in to their work-camp gossip, or watch over Confucius’ shoulder as one petty, corrupt, minor official after another slowly drove him to consider whether there could be a better way to live. Those people and the times they lived in are gone, and if we are to make any sense of the evidence they left behind we must try to imagine the worlds in which they lived.
Writers of fiction also engage our imaginations. As writers, our imagination has more scope to run free, but still we must keep touch with a human reality if we want our characters and the worlds they move through to make sense and connect with our readers.
This is where history helps us as writers of fiction. If we want to get a feel for what it is like to be a different person, to live in a world whose most basic rules are different from what we know, history helps us do that.
Studying history is like living in a foreign country. We notice all the things that are different and that gives us the space to ask questions about ourselves we wouldn’t otherwise have thought to ask. We travel to come home again, and we study history to know ourselves better. Like fiction, history shows us other worlds, other ways of thinking, people who might have been us but aren’t, and in the end we understand ourselves a little better for the experience.
History for Writers is a weekly feature here on Co-Geeking that digs into history to see how it can be useful to us as writers. Every Monday I discuss some aspect of history and look at how it can inform the writing of fiction.
My area of academic expertise is in the ancient Mediterranean and Europe, so much of what I talk about comes from that region and period, but other histories are equally important and equally valuable. Please feel free to share your own knowledge and ideas in the comments.
As a writer, I mostly work in secondary-world fantasy. Whatever kind of fiction you write, though, I hope you will find something worthwhile here.
And, as with all writing advice, the most important piece is: Take from this whatever is useful in whatever way it is useful to you and forget about the rest.
There are certain caveats and disclaimers that apply to just about every History for Writers post and it would be tedious repeat them every time they are needed, so here they are for reference.
1. All historical scholarship is to some degree provisional
Scholarship is always advancing. New evidence comes to light. New arguments are entertained. A shift in theoretical approach makes us look at the same thing in a different way. Even things we thought were long settled sometimes surprise us. I will do my best to give you our current understanding of the history in question and to let you know about debates and uncertainties, but there is always a chance that a year from now, a decade from now, or even next week someone will uncover new evidence or propose a new interpretation of the evidence we have that completely changes the way we think about things.
2. No one is an expert in everything
That includes me. Even in the areas I am an expert on, there are particular things that other people know more about than I do. As with number 1, I will give you the current thinking about a historical subject as best I know it, but there are going to be things I miss, advances I’m not familiar with, and things I haven’t thought about. If you have some expertise on a topic to share, please join in in the comments section.
3. This isn’t a textbook, journal article, or conference paper
This is a blog. It’s informal. It’s conversational. It’s a chat at the virtual water cooler. Don’t look for me to footnote every fact or cite every source. I’ll provide useful references when I think it may be helpful or interesting, and feel free to ask if I don’t, but this isn’t the place for full academic rigor. Take anything I say as the beginning of a conversation, not the final word.
4. Individuals are not societies; societies are not individuals
History is made up of lots of individuals making lots of individual choices. Many of those choices flock together and make patterns, but there are always exceptions. What we know about societies as a whole does not necessarily apply to every person who lived within those societies, and what we learn about an individual person does not necessarily apply to the society he or she lived within. We must not mistake one for the other.
5. We are not our ancestors
To many of us, history is personal and emotional. We identify with the people we think of as “our people,” and it is natural to take pride in their accomplishments and minimize their failings. But as natural an impulse as this is, it is one we must resist. We are not them. We do not live in the world they lived in. We do not know what they knew or feel what they felt. We cannot take credit for the things they did well, nor must we shoulder the blame for the things they got wrong. What we owe them, what we owe all of them, is neither pride nor shame, but a full and honest understanding of who they were in all of their complicated humanity.
Image: Monument, detail of photograph by Pitropakis via Wikimedia
History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write.