Fantastical History

For as long as I’ve been an independent reader, my non-fiction has always leaned towards two broad areas – history and science. It doesn’t hurt that history and science occasionally (and importantly) overlap. Most readers and writers of speculative fiction know that a working general knowledge of science is important in writing good science fiction, and that a working general knowledge of history is invaluable in writing good fantasy. What science can also provide is a reasonable idea of what to expect from the physical future, from the course of an infectious disease to the course of our sun’s evolution. Science can’t yet provide all the answers arising from the physical realm (and may never be able to), but science is the tool we’ll use to chase them up.

On the other hand, history is a much less competent guide to the future. It is a furphy that history repeats itself. Mark Twain perhaps came closest to the truth when he said that ‘History does not repeat itself, but it does rhyme.’[1] We are a pattern-finding species, and tend to find patterns even when they don’t exist. Historians are no exception, and the temptation always exists to chart a civilisation’s progress against the rise and fall of a previous civilisation to see how closely they match.

The temptation is even more acute for writers of fiction. Story-telling is not so different from pattern-finding: we identify common themes and characters and pursue their threads through a narrative, creating something whole out of something disparate and sometimes even apparently unrelated. There are few things more exhilarating for a reader than following a story to its revelation and for the first time seeing how everything fits together.

This is a long and roundabout way to get to the point I want to make about the Chronicles of Kydan and more generally about much of modern fantasy.

Many science fiction writers enjoy pondering historical ‘what-ifs’: what if Elizabeth I had been assassinated in 1588 (Keith Roberts’ Pavane)? What if the Confederacy had won at Gettysburg (Ward Moore’s Bring the Jubilee)? Some writers, such as Harry Turtledove, even make a career out of it.

I think a great deal of fantasy writing deals with ‘what-ifs’ as well, but from a much wider perspective than a single departure from our true timeline. The most obvious change is a universe in which magic works, but I think the more important change is the resetting of cultures and societies in a secondary world, and doing it in a way that gives rise to a new historical “pattern”. These cultures usually remain broadly recognisable – medieval European or classical Chinese, for example – but the new pattern generates enormous potential for storytelling. These are not potpourri worlds, with elements thrown together in an attempt to create something that appears new, but worlds with texture and time on their side because most readers bring with them their own experience and knowledge of the past.

As a writer, one of the most appealing aspects of world building is the chance to create a brand new history. In these secondary worlds, even with overtly familiar cultures, there is no predicting how those cultures will interact with each other in the new setting, and certainly for the reader there is no way of predicting how their futures will play out.

In the Chronicles of Kydan I created two societies modelled on those that evolved during the early stages of the Renaissance. The first – the Hamilayan Empire – is a slave-reliant, magic-wielding society with political echoes of Renaissance kingdoms such as France and the Holy Roman Empire, while the second – the trading city of Kydan – is based on the independent city-states that flowered in northern Italy at the same time.[2]

I think the Renaissance is a naturally fertile ground for story-telling, with societies moving from a late medieval to an early modern framework while using much older classical civilisation as an influence. Talk about pattern-finding.

As happens with all writers, I’m constantly asked where the ideas from my stories come from, but it seems strange to me that anyone who loves reading history is not overwhelmed by ideas for good stories. The more history I read the more stories I want to write, and with its potential for weaving new cloth from old, fantasy has always seemed the best way to express that want.


[1] Actually, a quick check with Wikipedia indicates this quote sounds like something Mark Twain would have said, but cannot be sourced. What he actually wrote about history was: ‘It is not worth while to try to keep history from repeating itself, for man’s character will always make the preventing of the repetitions impossible.’ Which actually scans like something Twain should have rephrased.

[2] When I started the trilogy I had more in mind the ancient Greek city-state as a model for Kydan rather than Milan or Florence, but as the story progressed Kydan itself progressed until the fit was more natural. Writing often works this way, which is one of its wonders and joys.


[This article first appeared on  Gillian Polack’s blog in 2012.]

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