On ‘Steal the Past, Build the Future: New histories for fantasy fiction’

Yume No Hon: The Book of DreamsPistols! Treason! Murder!: The Rise and Fall of a Master SpyKing's Dragon (Crown of Stars S.)In the Night Garden (Orphan's Tales)Mystery of the MayaShaman's CrossingZahrah the Windseeker Mysterious Cities of Gold The

This article is based on a session at AussieCon 4.

There tend to be a lot of similar settings in fantasy fiction based on a faux medieval period

The panelists discussed a tendency for many fiction writers to treat a whole period of history after ancient Greece and ancient Rome and before industrialisation in Europe broadly as a medieval period. Of course, this tendency does not apply to all fiction writers or all fantasy fiction writers – for example, there are also many stories set in Edo period Japan, Renaissance Europe, colonial America, and so on – but there do tend to be lots of broadly medieval settings in fantasy fiction.

How can fiction writers break out of a tendency to use faux medieval settings?

The focus of the session was on ways of coming up with less commonly used settings.

Using folk lore as inspiration

One of the panelists suggested using ‘folk lore narratives as a frame on which to hang a story’ and also suggested that many contemporary urban legends, like the one that eating pop rocks while drinking soft drink will make someone’s stomach explode, are more like a warning than a story. The TV show Mythbusters is good for helping to sort myths from what’s possible – from an ancient cannon made from a tree trunk to whether someone could swing all the way around on a swing. Using folk lore from historical places and times less prominently used in fiction can be a useful starting point for developing original stories.

Of course, you can borrow or draw inspiration from folk lore even when you know it to be myth rather than something that actually happened or could have actually happened, especially for fantasy fiction.

As one panelist pointed out, there are studies of folk lore which you can read. These include the work of Vladimir Propp, Georges Polti, and the Grimm brothers. However, when reading the work of those who have studied folk tales, it’s important to acknowledge that they are describing specific stories and making generalisations based on comparing and contrasting specific stories. However, trying to reduce a life, real or fictional, to equations by using the work of Propp or Polti however can be simplistic. Some people try to make stories or lives conform to these descriptions of comparisons and contrasts between a sample of stories. Used in conjunction with reading a range of stories for yourself, other people’s work based on studying folk tales can be a useful starting point for brainstorming story ideas.

Use stories which are relevant to contemporary life, instead of following old equations

Instead of locking yourself into old equations and making your stories conform to them, come up with stories relevant to contemporary life – whether you use Plato, Aristotle, Propp, Polti, Freud, Marx, Roland Barthes, Joseph Campbell/Christopher Vogler, or any other commonly used source of categorising and template thinking – it is important to realize the difference between work which is descriptive (used to describe specific stories) and that which is prescriptive (used to prescribe a plan for future activity). A particularly useful skill is the ability to read descriptive work and to be able to comprehend what is being described, to judge to what extent you agree or disagree with that description and why, and then to use your own thinking to create your own original story, without simply borrowing a system of categorisation as a means of creating story templates.

Research less places and times less prominently used in fiction

The empires of Phoenicia, Mali and Hittite were raised as examples of settings less prominently used in fiction. These empires do not have comparable levels of surviving detailed written documents as ancient Greece and Rome but there are still surviving documents and archaeological evidence to hint at what life was like in those places and times. Other options include ancient Sumeria/Mesopotamia, the Caral civilisation, the Mayan empire, the Han empire, the Mauryan empire, Nara and Heian period Japan, the Safavid empire, pre-1066 Normandy and the Norman kingdom in southern Italy, the 13th-14th century Mongol empire, pre-1917 Russia, and the short-lived nation of Manchukuo.

Also discussed was the year 1816, which became known as the year without summer, following the eruption of Mt Tambora in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) in an event much larger than the more well documented and now more well known 1883 Krakatoa eruption. The Mt Tambora eruption in 1815, followed other large volcanic eruptions in the Dutch East Indies and the Carribean in 1812, Japan in 1813 and the Phillipines in 1814 which combined to put enough volcanic dust into the atmosphere to have a significant global cooling effect throughout 1816. This had major effects around the world, from famine and food riots across Europe in the wake of the Napoleonic wars, large scale crop failures in China, red snow year round in Italy and brown snow in Hungary, lakes failed to unfreeze after winter in the US and many farmers moved on in search of more suitable farmland.

There are many such settings which have lots of potential for a huge range of stories, without sticking to common choices of extensively documented historical settings such as ancient Greece, ancient Rome, Geoffrey of Monmouth’s depiction of England, Renaissance Europe, or World War 2 (a common fantasy setting for US comic books).

Don’t judge a historical document according to a monolithic conception of a time period

Work out:

–          how that particular document has been made (don’t just rely on a speculative theory of ‘how to interpret texts’)

–          what you can determine from the document without relying on a generalised conception of the time period in which it was produced

How can you separate your imagination and contemporary knowledge from what is true, so far as you can know it?

If you want to present a historical setting realistically, or just without unintended additions to the setting and the story from your contemporary experiences and knowledge, it is important to distinguish between what you know, what you reasonably suspect based on as reliable evidence as you can get about the setting you are dealing with, and your imagination and contemporary sensibilities.

Writing to ‘recover a lost past’ (what if…?)

One of the panelists suggested writing ‘to recover a lost past’, in the sense of writing what could have happened if a significant event from the past had happened differently. This is also known as alternative history.

NEXT: On ‘Thinking in Trilogies’

Yume No Hon: The Book of DreamsPistols! Treason! Murder!: The Rise and Fall of a Master SpyKing's Dragon (Crown of Stars S.)In the Night Garden (Orphan's Tales)Mystery of the MayaShaman's CrossingZahrah the Windseeker Mysterious Cities of Gold The

The Australian Literature Review

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4 Responses to On ‘Steal the Past, Build the Future: New histories for fantasy fiction’

  1. Michael says:

    I think any serious fan of fantasy won’t automatically equate the genre with the medieval period as a laymen would. A lot of this is due to Tolkien, I feel, and also Hollywood and all other mass media’s subsequent portrayal of it.

    A dip into fantasy which shows pretty much every period in human history covered. David Gemmel probably uses most of them on his own. In fact in one of his loose trilogies… ah, I can’t remember the name, but he follows a celtic based clan through medieval, then Roman then 18th century industrial type environments in the same world.

    I think the question should be less ‘how can we break this paradigm’ than ‘how can we make non fans realise fantasy is not always medieval’?

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  4. Tamsyn says:

    I’ve just started reading Jared Diamond’s books (as suggested by Trudi Canavan and History Buff friends). His ‘Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed’ especially is a good starting point for world building – or at least society building.

    Here are more of her recommendations:

    I really want to get that ‘Technology’ book – it looks like a winner for world building.

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