The Rules of (Ancient) Magic

Not too long ago I was perusing a post by the fantasy author N. K. Jemisin about magic in fantasy. (The post is from several years back, but it only came to my attention recently—it’s well worth reading both the post and the comments after, if you’re interested in fantasy writing.) Jemisin takes issue with contemporary writers who obsess over rules and systems for magic rather than letting magic be the strange, unpredictable, sometimes frightening force that it often was in older fantasy by authors like Tolkien and Le Guin.

Naturally, being a historian of the ancient Mediterranean by training and a fantasy fan and author by inclination, it got me thinking about how magic is used in ancient Greek and Roman literature. The first problem is how to define magic. Lots of strange things happen in classical myths, but most of those are the action of gods, to whom turning people into peacocks or birthing fully-armed daughters out of their heads comes naturally. Ancient societies also widely believed that humans had the ability to invoke the gods to take action on their behalf through rituals including offerings, prayers, curses, and dances. I’m taking a more limited definition of magic, however: supernatural powers and events produced directly by humans at their will without requiring the aid and participation of gods or other superhuman entities. Using this definition, magic is actually quite rare in ancient literature, but here are a few examples.

In the Odyssey by Homer, the witch Circe uses enchanted food and a magic wand to transform Odysseus’ crew into animals. The god Hermes points Odysseus to a special herb which protects him from Circe’s magic as long as he is holding it, which allows him to overcome Circe and force her to restore his crew. (As a side note, this part of the epic may ultimately derive from Babylonian myths about the god Marduk, who held a sweet-smelling herb to protect himself from the poisonous blood of the dragon Tiamat and her monstrous children.)

In Euripides’ drama Medea, the sorceress Medea, abandoned by her husband Jason, sends a poisoned robe and crown to Jason’s new bride, Glauce. When Glauce dons the poisoned gifts, they cling to her body and burn her to death.

In Apuleius’ novel Metamorphoses (often also called The Golden Ass), the narrator Lucius learns that his friend’s wife dabbles in magic and can transform into a bird by rubbing a magic potion on her body. Lucius wants to try the same and steals some of her potion, but by mistake he gets the wrong one and is turned into a donkey. From the lady’s maid, Photis, he learns that the secret to reversing his transformation is to eat rose petals, but roses are not in season and the rest of the novel follows Lucius the donkey from one misadventure to the next as he tries to find roses to eat.

From these examples, we can notice some patterns about how Green and Roman authors thought about and used magic. On one hand, there is no sign of a magic system, as described by Jemisin. There are no universal rules and no explanation for how or why magic works. Every individual case is different. It depends upon secrets known only to its users, never shared with the audience, and its results often shock and terrify those who encounter them.

At the same time, even though we cannot call this magic systematic, there is a consistency to it. It tends to require special objects or substances, such as enchanted food, magic flowers, poisons, and potions. Those who are initiated into its powers can use them with confidence: Medea knows that her poison will be effective, just as Circe knows she is defeated when she sees Odysseus carrying the plant that makes him immune to her power. When the effects fail or go awry, it is because of ignorance or ineptitude on the part of the wielders, like Lucius using the wrong potion.

Despite this general consistency, the magic remains narratively powerful. It does not become dull and predictable or divert the stories away from the characters’ choices and their consequences. In fact, magic makes possible the human stories that are at the center of these narratives, from Medea’s calamitous vengeance to Lucius’ comic wanderings. How does it achieve these things? A few observations:

The stories include magic; they aren’t about magic. Magic is a MacGuffin. It sets things in motion or presents characters with choices to make, but once the magic has done its job, it disappears into the background and lets the characters get on with things.

Magic does not solve or circumvent the crucial problems. The human issues and choices at the center of these stories are ones that magic cannot touch. Odysseus is trying to get home. He deals with magic and monsters on his way, but it isn’t magic that gets him where he wants to go. Medea’s magic gives her the power to deeply hurt Jason in a way that a mundane woman in her position could not, but the story is about how she makes the choice to use that power. Lucius’ magical mishaps drive him to rethink his unsatisfying life and resolve to be a better person. Magic presents these characters with challenges and choices they wouldn’t otherwise face, but their stories are still about what happens in their hearts and minds.

We know only as much as we need to know. Apuleius does not list the ingredients in Lucius’ donkeyfying draught, nor is there an appendix at the end of the Odyssey to explain how Odysseus’ magical plant disrupted the mystical ether currents that Circe manipulated with her wand. Medea does not take time out from her revenge plot to give the audience a primer on fiery poisons. The magic simply works the way it is supposed to, and that’s all we need to know.

Thoughts for writers

There’s room in fantasy literature for many kinds of magic, from complex and internally consistent systems to strange and unpredictable effects. There’s even a place for fantasy with no magic at all. Whatever kind of fantasy you feel like writing, though, remember this: the story comes first. Whatever you do with your magic, don’t let it get in the way of your characters and the choices they have to make.

Image: Circe flees from Odysseus, with animal-headed crew, detail of photograph via Wikimedia (Metropolitan Museum of Art; c. 440 BCE; red-figure vase; by the Persephone Painter)

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. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

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Quotes: Conflict Is One Kind of Behavior

“Modernist manuals of writing often conflate story with conflict. This reductionism reflects a culture that inflates aggression and competition while cultivating ignorance of other behavioral options. No narrative of any complexity can be built on or reduced to a single element. Conflict is one kind of behavior. There are others, equally important in any human life, such as relating, finding, losing, bearing, discovering, parting, changing. Change is the universal aspect of all these sources of story. Story is something moving, something happening, something or somebody changing.”

– Ursula K. Le Guin

I’d like my speculative fiction actually inventive, you know. Just like a human being is rarely reducible to one trait, yet that treatment is often used in storytelling as a shortcut, especially when it comes to characters deemed less important, like women, children, old people, or minorities of various stripes.

Which is not to say that stereotypes, caricatures, or the like don’t or cannot have a place in storytelling. However, if the majority of storytelling focuses on nothing else than characters or story elements reduced to their bare bones, it’s bound to become boring and empty.

There is so much more to our world, let alone imaginary worlds!

Found via Martha Wells on Tumblr.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

Eating

Whether it’s lembas bread and stewed rabbit or a nice fresh pan-galactic gargle blaster, the things that characters eat and drink can be a useful way of establishing the feel of an unfamiliar world. But how your characters eat and how their food is prepared and served can contribute just as much to your worldbuilding as what they eat. Here are a few things to think about when creating food systems for fantasy worlds.

Wet carbs or dry carbs?

Traditional cuisines in most of the world are based on carbohydrates, but those carbs can come in many different forms. If they’re dry—flatbread, raised breads, tortillas, biscuits, etc.—then people are likely to eat them by hand and may well use them to pick up and hold other dishes like stews and sauces. If they’re wet—porridge, cooked rice, pasta, etc.—people are more likely to use implements like spoons and chopsticks to hold them.

Eating by hand or eating with implements?

While this can be to some extent determined by the nature of the food, many foods can be eaten either by hand or with implements. Implement-eating cultures tend to develop specialized implements for particular foods or kinds of eating; whether or not people have access to or know how to use the correct implements for the right food can be a marker of social status. On the other hand, hand-eating cultures can have just as complicated rules about how to eat. Forget the renfaire stereotypes about grabbing a turkey leg and tearing into it; societies that eat by hand tend to have strict rules governing when and how often you wash your hands, which hand you use to eat with, even which fingers and which individual finger joints should be used for which foods.

Large pieces or small pieces?

Some cuisines, such as most traditional European cookery, tend to cook meats and vegetables in large pieces which individual diners cut up for themselves. Others, such as traditional cuisines across much of south and east Asia, tend to cut meats and vegetable into smaller pieces in the kitchen which are served up to be consumed as they are.

Communal dishes or individual servings?

Sometimes food is served in communal dishes from which everyone takes what they like; other times, everyone gets their own individual serving. Both ways of serving are wrapped up with social etiquette. With communal dishes, there are usually rules about how people serve themselves, in what order, and how much at a time. With individual dishes, there may be rules about whether everyone gets the same things or the same amount.

In any culture, you are also likely to find variations on these possibilities. People of different social classes or ethnic backgrounds within the same society may well follow different eating customs. The same people may also eat differently under different circumstances: a quiet family dinner at home probably has different social rules than a public banquet for a festival day. Drawing out these complexities is also a part of worldbuilding.

Food is important. People often get emotionally invested not just in what they eat but in how they eat it. Many of the customs and norms that societies develop for how food is eaten and served have their roots in protecting hygiene and managing social hierarchies, two very important issues for personal well-being. Even today, when modern food safety practices and the weakening of traditional social hierarchies has made these issues less urgent, people can still have deep emotional reactions to perceived transgressions as trivial as folding a slice of pizza or eating a hamburger with fork and knife.

Imagine how important customs of cooking, serving, and eating food could be in a world in which your character’s standing in society may depend on knowing which finger to use to dip into the shared sauce bowl.

Image: Preparing butter, image from Shiwunbencao (ink on paper, Ming period)

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. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Top Five Posts for 2017

Another year is behind us, and what a year it was. Here are the 2017 posts that got the most views. Most of them are from our How to Helsinki series in the run-up to Worldcon75 in Helsinki in August:

  1. How to Helsinki: Concerning Finns Erik’s post about Finnish culture and how to be a good visitor to Finland
  2. What Makes a Fantasy World Feel European? Erik’s reflections on geography, history, culture, and why some fantasy worldbuilding feels like a recreation of Europe
  3. How to Helsinki: Getting around Helsinki Eppu’s detailed and user-friendly guide to navigating around Helsinki
  4. How to Helsinki: Resources by Worldcon 75 Staff Eppu’s list of helpful info and links provided by the staff of Worldcon 75
  5. How to Helsinki: Sauna, That Scary-Hot Room Full of Naked Eppu’s introduction to the Finnish sauna for those who have never experienced it before

Some posts from previous years have remained popular as well. Here’s the overall list of top five posts people read in 2017, some of them from a year or two back:

  1. Do-It-Yourself Fantasy Place Name Generator Erik’s basic system for creating fictitious place names (from 2015)
  2. How to Helsinki: Concerning Finns Erik’s post about Finnish culture and how to be a good visitor to Finland
  3. What Makes a Fantasy World Feel European? Erik’s reflections on geography, history, culture, and why some fantasy worldbuilding feels like a recreation of Europe
  4. Sean Bean on the LotR Joke in The Martian Eppu shares a short transcript from an interview with Sean Bean by Yle, the Finnish national broadcast company (from 2015)
  5. Hogwarts Dueling Club Tablecloth Transformed into Wall Hanging Eppu shares an eye-catching Harry Potter craft project found online (from 2016)

Thanks for stopping by. We hope you enjoyed reading our posts as much as we enjoyed writing them!

Messing with numbers is messy.

 

History for Writers Compendium: 2017

History for Writers explores world history to offer ideas and observations of interest to those of us who are in the business of inventing new worlds, cultures, and histories of our own. Here’s where we’ve been in 2017:

Practicalities

Connections between cultures

Ancient wisdom for troubled times

Telling stories

Thinking historically

Past cultures

Race in Antiquity

Join us in 2018 for more history from a SFF writer’s perspective.

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. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

Writing, Reading, Living Different Cultures

I saw a Twitter thread about writing culture by author Joan He, on the face of it about her (or your) own but by extension that of others, and it has plenty of food for thought:

 

As a reader, and specifially a reader of speculative and historical fiction primarily not in my native language, I run into differences in culture a lot. And as a person in a multicultural, multilingual relationship in a strange country where I’m a cultural and linguistic minority, from time to time I find myself slammed against more deep-seated cultural assumptions.

Joan pointed out that culture is a way of thinking, or cognition, or perspective. As an example, I’d like to share two failures of cultural expectations from my personal experience.

Ratatouille Anton Ego Perspective Quote

At a con once, I wanted to get a book signed by an American author. I happened to know from their online presence that the author is an introvert. Even though we were both at a public place where introverted authors and panelists often don a more outgoing persona than they do in private, as another introvert I wanted to make sure I’d be especially considerate. However, quite without intending to I tripped over a distinctly Finnish quirk.

One of the big unspoken assumptions in the Finnish culture is that silence isn’t a negative. (Erik and I have both written about it for instance here, here, and here.) In essence, how I understand it, silence means space, and space means respect to other people.

Accordingly, at the abovementioned autograph session, when it came my turn I said my hellos, presented the author with my book, and waited silently. It wasn’t until the author asked me “Did you read it?” that I realised they expected me to say something else. And I had thought I was being courteous not to burden them with yet another dose of chitchat on a weekend full of being “on” at a busy con. I can’t remember for sure, since it was a kind of a deer in the headlights moment for me, but I think I was able to stutter my way to an exit without actually breaking into a run. In any case, not terribly smooth on my part.

I’ve also had a previously friendly person walk away from me when, in the middle of a presentation, I (I’m guessing “merely”) nodded to them to acknowledge their presence and silently continued to listen to the speaker (I’m guessing instead of starting a conversation with the friendly person). Although it’s been years, I still find that an utterly, completely, and thoroughly puzzling reaction.

Over the years, I’ve built a store of strategies and stock exchanges I can pull out if needed, but it’s been hard to try and perform—for it is essentially a performance—in a way that feels unnatural and at times even rude to me. Even after 10+ years, I still can’t bring myself to commit to it wholeheartedly. I suspect I’ll always be the odd, quiet one in Anglo-American contexts, but that’s my background and temperament.

So: yes, cultural assumptions and perspectives are difficult to convey, whether in writing or otherwise. Adding surface details to a fictional culture is easy, and it can be a fantastic tool for both creating distance from the everyday world and deepening the invented one. I love seeing glimpses of the practicalities that fictional characters deal with; I would find—and have found—stories seriously lacking without them. Never, though, should the surface glitter be where invention on the part of author ends; that is as unsatisfying as a lack of external cultural markers.

Being a truly exceptional author has, for me, come to mean not only the ability to create layered, nuanced worlds (or convey the complexities of everyday life in historical fiction). In addition, skilled authors I enjoy the most are able to avoid massive infodumps and to suggest underlying cultural values subtly, as inseparable part of narration and dialogue. And that’s a very challenging thing to do. It sometimes takes me more than one read-through to feel I’m beginning to understand a story. Then again, worthwhile things often are the most difficult ones.

Image via The Autodidactic Hacker

In Live and Active Cultures we talk about cultures and cultural differences.

Secondary Characters in Love

I realized something recently.

There are lot of books, movies, television series, and so on about people falling in love, or whose main characters end up in a relationship. (No, that’s not the thing I realized.) Mulder and Scully. Lizzie and Darcy. Aragorn and Arwen. For a lot of people, these pairings are a big deal. Fans of these works love watching the characters fall in love (or arguing endlessly on the internet about it) and creators tease us with will-they-or-won’t-they flirtation and big payoff wedding days.

All of this is perfectly fine, but it’s not for me. I don’t mind that Mulder and Scully end up together, but that was never what I watched X Files for. I love Pride and Prejudice for the witty dialogue, expertly crafted story, and deliciously wicked satires of social pretension, not for the Darcy-Bennet nuptials.

Now here’s the thing I realized: even though I have no investment in main character romances, I adore secondary character romances. I love watching side and background characters fall in love and get down to happily-ever-after-ing. I don’t care one way or another if Phryne Fisher and Jack Robinson end up together, but I’m all in for Dot and Hugh. To me, the climax of Pride and Prejudice is not when Mr. Darcy proposes (for the second time) to Elizabeth Bennet, but when Mr. Bingley proposes to Jane Bennet.

I think there are some reasons for this. Side characters’ romances are not generally made to carry the same dramatic weight as main characters’. That means they don’t usually get saddled with tedious will-they-or-won’t-they teases or artificial roadblocks to “build drama.” More often they get to be sweet, silly, stories of love. In longer-form works, like television series, secondary characters also often get to make progress in their romance, moving on from flirtation to dating to marriage to wedded life while main characters tend to get stuck in stasis.

Then again, maybe I just love secondary characters.

Anybody else feel this way? Or am I just peculiar?

Image: Jane and Charles via Giphy

In Character is an occasional feature looking at some of our favorite characters from written works and media to see what drives them, what makes them work, and what makes us love them so much.

Quotes: Believing All That Matters Is What They Want

On his blog, author Jason Sanford talks about story submission and publication data, specifically with SFF genre in mind. He refers to an essay, an interview, and his experience as editor, and talks about how men tend to submit many more stories than women, even when their stories were “totally inappropriate” (in Jason’s words). His conclusion?

“In the case of why male authors are far more likely to not read a magazine or their guidelines before submitting, and are more likely to submit multiple stories in a short time frame, I think it ties in with them not seeing the motivations of others and believing all that matters is what they want.

“But if you’re submitting your stories to an editor, what you want isn’t what lands the acceptance. It’s what the editor wants. Otherwise, an author is merely wasting everyone’s time.”

– Jason Sanford

I’ve no comment on the data and survey side of the post, being a not-numbers person. What struck me was that this is the strongest-worded remark I’ve seen—and note that it really isn’t—saying a number of male authors behave in a blatantly self-centered manner and suggesting they change.

Sanford, Jason. “The Submissions Men Don’t See.” Jasonsanford.com, September 24, 2017.

Serving exactly what it sounds like, the Quotes feature excerpts other people’s thoughts.

What Makes a Fantasy World Feel European?

One of the workshops I attended at Worldcon 75 was about non-European-based fantasy worldbuilding. It was a lively and enjoyable workshop, but—no doubt for logistical reasons—the discussion of what exactly makes a setting seem European was cut rather short. It’s not a question that is easy to answer, even though—from Tolkien to Game of Thrones—it is obvious that a lot of fantasy literature and media draws heavily on European, and specifically medieval European, influences. What is it about a fantasy world that makes it feel European, and what kinds of things should we consider changing if we want to create something that doesn’t?

Our popular collective sense of medieval European history is a fairy-tale world of knights on horseback, castles, kings and queens, pageantry and chivalry. For people growing up in the West, fairy tales in this tradition shape some of our earliest exposure to storytelling and it is no surprise that their forms and characters continue to inform how we approach fantasy. If you want to make your fantasy world feel less European, one approach is simply to look around the world for different terms to slot into the formula. Instead of telling a story about a dashing knight riding his trusty steed to rescue the princess from the castle of the wicked queen, you can tell a story about a dashing jaguar warrior riding his trusty ostrich to rescue the geisha from the stone fortress of the wicked maharani. This kind of “palette-swapping” (as Jeannette Ng calls it in an excellent recent Twitter thread) can work, up to a point, but the more depth and detail you have in your story, the more shallow this kind of worldbuilding will feel.

Let’s take a closer look at the details of “fairy tale” Europe. Knights, castles, kings and queens all have some basis in reality, but they are complicated. Mounted knights played only a small part in medieval European warfare and only in certain regions and periods. The crenellated stone fortresses we think of as “castles” had a similarly limited scope. Kingship was a precarious position across most of medieval Europe (where it existed at all). The most powerful actors were often local warlords. Chivalry meant the rules of war, which were followed as haphazardly as rules of war generally are. Their more romantic aspects were an embellishment of popular literature. Indeed, modern fantasy literature that imagines a world of chivalrous knights and fair damsels wandering from castle to castle draws far more on medieval fantasy literature (not to mention the self-serving propaganda of a small warrior elite) than on any of the realities of European history.

Furthermore, many of the things we commonly associate with medieval Europe were not originally European. Heavily-armed cavalry had been pioneered by the Parthians and depended on technologies—most crucially stirrups and large, strong horse breeds—developed in Central Asia. Stone fortifications had a long history of development in the Levant, and European castle designs drew heavily on Islamic examples encountered by Crusaders. Speaking of the Crusades, the Christian texts and ideologies that guided medieval intellectual culture were rooted in Jewish traditions and the cultural turmoil of the Roman empire’s eastern provinces.

So, what, after all, is so European about Europe? When we say that the fantasy we’re reading feels European, or that we want to write something that doesn’t, what are the things that add up to that?

My basic advice for worldbuilding is: start with the land, so let’s look at the land of Europe.

Europe, geographically speaking, is not really a continent but rather the long, vaguely triangular western end of Eurasia. Compared with most other major land areas, Europe is relatively compact. Most of the landmass falls between the 40th and 60th parallels. Many bays and small seas penetrate the land and break it up into numerous peninsulas and islands. A long mountain system sprawls across the southern half, a smaller and more fragmented one across the northwestern diagonal. Wedged between them is a broad plain threaded with numerous rivers, with forests in the west giving way to grasslands in the east. The North Atlantic current brings warm water and wet winds to the western coast while the many bays and small seas bring the climate-moderating effects of water to much of the land.

This geography has several significant effects for human cultures in Europe. One is that the climate is relatively stable and uniform across most of Europe. The southern half tends more warm and dry while the northern half is more cool and wet, but broadly speaking, the temperatures, rainfall, seasonal weather patterns, and growing conditions are similar enough across most of the land that the same crops can be grown and animals raised in most regions. (No, I’m not saying the climates of Spain and Finland are identical; I’m saying they have enough in common that a farmer from one place would not have to learn a whole new way of farming and acquire entirely new crops and animals to get by in the other.) The major staple crops are grains, primarily wheat and barley, with hardier alternatives like rye and oats appearing farther north. The principal farm animals are pigs, cattle, sheep, goats, and poultry, with goats being more common in the mountainous south and cattle more common in the northern plains.

The geography also makes travel and transport relatively easy. Most places in Europe are within a few hundred kilometers of the sea and much of the area is crossed by navigable rivers. Since waterborne transport is more efficient than overland, large cargoes can be carried around Europe more easily than in many other regions.

Put together the similarity of climate and the ease of transport and the result is a land where many basic elements of economic and social life—the organization of agricultural labor, the rhythms of the farming year, the structure of local trade—are similar in many different places. The relative ease of connecting local economies into long-distance trade means that goods, people, and ideas flow readily from one region to another.

Despite the ecological cohesiveness of Europe, this landscape has different effects on political life. The profusion of islands, peninsulas, and bays breaks up the landmass into many smaller regions. So do the mountains of the south and the forested areas of the north. While these smaller regions are connected by trade and travel, they are difficult to assemble into large coherent states. There are many places in Europe where one leader with a small following of warriors could easily control a handful of villages or a stretch of river valley, but these small territories are much harder to unite under one leader’s power.

These two tendencies have underlain much of European history and are still visible today: cultural and economic interconnectedness at odds with political fragmentation.

When people are united by culture but divided by politics, their warfare tends to focus on establishing dominance over the enemy rather than destroying them. The respect for shared institutions and values facilitates the development of common diplomatic customs which can limit the destructiveness of warfare and channel competition into symbolic contests. On the other hand, diplomacy can draw conflicts out by delaying a decisive clash. People are likely to find themselves at war repeatedly over the same issues, a feature we can also see in European history.

These factors tend to draw European societies into internal connections and conflicts, but Europe is also well connected to the outside world. The Mediterranean Sea is easy to cross to North Africa or the Levant and the there is an extensive land connection to the rest of Eurasia. A short overland trip from the southeastern Mediterranean leads on to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean. North America can be reached either by riding the circular North Atlantic trade winds or by island-hopping by way of Britain, the Faroes, Iceland, and Greenland. People have always been moving into and out of Europe both individually and in larger migrations, bringing the influence of outside ideas and cultures into the region and taking European ideas abroad.

All of these factors are part of what makes Europe European. We can see their influence even in the fairy tale version. Many kings and queens (and other kinds of rulers) have competed for power across stretches of Europe, relying on knights (and warriors of other descriptions) who supported themselves on the agricultural produce of small local regions. In parts of this fragmented landscape, local magnates built castles (and other kinds of fortified dwellings) to secure their control of territory and resources. The cultural and economic connections between many of these warring parties fostered the development of a common set of norms for the conduct of warfare, which literature elaborated into a fanciful code of chivalry. Contact with the outside world and immigration of foreign peoples brought new ideas and technologies—like stirrups and stone castles—which then spread widely through networks of trade.

These forces are not always visible in storytelling, but they underlie many of the basic assumptions, social structures, and cultural habits that make so many fantasy worlds feel European. Even some of the most basic staples of fantasy literature have their roots in the European landscape—of course everyone eats bread and cheese when wheat is the dominant crop across most of Europe and cattle are the primary herd animal on half the continent.

If we want to build fantasy worlds that don’t follow the same familiar patterns, we need to understand where those patterns come from.

Images: La Belle Dame sans Merci via Wikimedia (Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery; 1901; oil on canvas; Frank Dicksee). Satellite map of Euopre via Wikimedia. A View of Tallanton Castle via Wikimedia (Scottish National Gallery; 1816; oil on canvas; Alexander Naysmith).

Post edited for clarity and to correct historical inaccuracies.

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. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

The Secret of Roman Concrete

Trajan’s Market, Rome, with a vaulted concrete ceiling over brick walls, photo by Szilas via Wikimedia

Roman concrete is an architectural marvel. It made it possible for the Romans to build structures unlike any built with the techniques of stone masonry. It turns out Roman concrete is also a chemical marvel. The combination of volcanic ash and rock, lime, and seawater gradually becomes stronger over time as the interaction of the volcanic components and the seawater forms new minerals that fill up cracks and reinforce the structure.

An article from the Guardian explains the process:

Over time, seawater that seeped through the concrete dissolved the volcanic crystals and glasses, with aluminous tobermorite and phillipsite crystallising in their place. These minerals […] helped to reinforce the concrete, preventing cracks from growing, with structures becoming stronger over time as the minerals grew.

Given the limitations of Roman science, it’s doubtful that an ancient Roman concrete expert could have explained the chemical processes that happened in concrete, but that doesn’t mean that Romans just stumbled onto this formula by accident. Even with a limited theoretical understanding, smart people can acquire a lot of practical knowledge through experimentation and careful observation.

Thoughts for writers

Something to keep in mind when worldbuilding: practical knowledge doesn’t have to come from theoretical knowledge. In fact, it is often the opposite: theoretical knowledge develops from an attempt to explain what we already know practically to be true. If you want your fictional cultures to be able to make sturdy concrete, or airships, or vaccines, that doesn’t require them to have a modern understanding of chemistry, physics, or biology. Pre-modern peoples discovered lots of useful things by trial and error and paying close attention to the world around them, even if their attempts to explain why those things worked were sometimes wide of the mark, or they never attempted to explain them at all.

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. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.