Historical Facts and the Fantasy Writer

Map of the "barbarian" invasions of ...
Hey, it happened this way on Earth, so just accept it in my story! (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now that the holidays are over, my posts will return to the history theme I started a few months ago where we’ll pick up with some more historical details that might be of use to the fantasy writer. Before that, however, let’s turn to the general question of what use you can actually make of historical fact. It’s simple: you find a good historical tidbit and you slap it straight into your story. If it happened in the real world, it ought to be plenty good enough for your story and for your readers, right?

Unfortunately, no. If you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’ve probably already come across advice that suggests, for a host of different aspects of the craft, provide the illusion of reality, not the reality. This pitfall commonly occurs in dialogue. In the real world, we stutter, interrupt, hem & haw, repeat ourselves, wander off into useless digressions. Capture that on paper and you are likely to irritate your readers (and not just a little bit!). “But I listened to a conversation I had with my wife and there was an ‘um’ in every sentence and the ‘yes, you did’ ‘no you didn’t’ part really was repeated five times!” Too bad, it may be real but it is quite tedious, wasted words that do little to move the story forward or engage the reader.

"Middle Ages" spinner
Handcraft or machined in your world? (Photo credit: PTorrodellas)

There are similar traps with historical facts. For one thing, such historical facts are useless if your reader doesn’t believe them. As I mentioned in my post on the Nuremberg Beer Cellars, you can’t say in your story, this 200,000 square feet dungeon is realistic because there’s a beer cellar on earth just like it. Unlike a research paper, you aren’t allowed to reference supporting documents (assuming your fantasy world is entirely severed from earth- if you have earthlings portaled over to a strange world, sure, they could mention the reference.)

Second, just because you can find a historical attestation for something, doesn’t mean it is an appropriate fact for one of your characters to spout. In a critter critique I did some time ago, I pointed out to the author that it felt odd to me that her princess would relate the cost of a bolt of cloth in terms of the wages of a particular craftsmen (two years wages for a stone cutter, I believe it was). Her reply to me was, “Well, I researched that and there really was a type of wool like that that cost two years stone cutters wages.” I’m sure she was correct in her research but the fact still remains, would her pampered princess know that? Maybe she would if she is repeating a line by a merchant who sold her the cloth but in most cases, I really doubt a princess has any idea what the wages of a craftsman are and how they relate to the cost of her cloth.

Chinese bronze ding vessel with gold and silve...
Hit the museums to get a feel for what high-end artwork was like at various times in Earth history: Chinese bronze ding vessel with gold and silver inlay from the Warring States Period (403-221 BC) of ancient China. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So what do you do with historical facts if you can’t reference them in your story and you can’t have most of your characters spouting them off? Simple: you use them to support verisimilitude. If you understand various elements of how big a lord’s household was at various times in earth history, the size of castles and the roles of their officials, why big dungeons were created on earth, then, even if your own setting is not all that analogous to any given Earth period, you can construct comparable things that make sense.

Take the Nuremberg cellars: they are big but they are carved in sandstone and took hundreds of years to make. So, for your world, if your dungeon is going to be created to a similar size with similar technology, then also have it in similar rock and created over a similar timespan. Or, create magic or creatures that work much faster. In the latter case, there is a hidden pitfall, though. Castles and city fortifications were very expensive and despite the romantic image we have of them today, they were only built to counter specific military threats. If you add burrowing monsters that can cut through rock in minutes, there won’t be much point in making stone fortifications which could be undermined or directly attacked by said creatures. So, be sure to look at the big picture and either stick as closely to historical fact as you can or understand what you are perturbing if you change the equation.

I won’t be posting just on history this year. But for those posts that do cover historical facts, keep this in mind: these facts are not a hard and fast rule. I’m not trying to tell you what you must do with your castles, lords and armies. Rather, I’m providing examples of what really happened at various times and places in our own history to give the writer some idea of what happened. From there, what you do is up to you. You may choose to research an area more thoroughly to really get the feel right. You might tuck it away to help with a minor element in a scene. You might ignore it entirely but at least have a somewhat better idea of the parameters of such things in one place (earth).

One last thing to remember, historical facts pertain to specific historical periods. The size of an army or a lord’s retinue at the height of the Roman Empire or in Warring States China would be very different from early middle age armies in Northern Europe. So, be careful not to build your world on a collection of incompatible facts. For example, in the early Middle Ages, there were not a lot of stone fortifications. This was not because medieval engineers forgot siegecraft or because the value of stone in a fortification was unknown. This was not the case. Rather, the resources to build a stone fortification were simply rarely present at the time.

You might like the feel of a Dark Age setting for your fantasy world (I do, such a setting is more intimate with many more kings, think Beowulf, and smaller armies which means greater scope for heroes). But in such a setting, anything more than wooden fortifications might be hard to justify. Large stoneworks require the marshalling of not just a large number of producers (farmers) but also reasonably efficient ones. For much of the middle ages, it might take 98 producers to support 2 consumers and these were often lords, their soldiers, and priests (not stone cutters). Today, the ratio is basically reversed in most of the developed world: it takes hardly any producers to support a huge number of consumers. It isn’t just that the population of the US is about 300M, it’s also that those 300M are 2500 times more efficient. So, much larger population, much more efficient workers (thanks to technology and education) and you have countries that spend billions of dollars on aircraft carriers and 2 miles of tunnel under Boston. To a lesser degree, the same holds in your fantasy world: be sure to size the military and opulence to the resources available.

Next up, some tidbits culled from a book on European middle ages military technology. After that, some more tidbits culled from Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, for a very specific time and place on Earth (I knew shop signs were often symbolic but didn’t realize their scale: in 1300s Paris, a tooth-pullers sign might be a molar the size of an arm-chair! Makes for an interesting little detail for your world- if your commoners are illiterate.)

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4 thoughts on “Historical Facts and the Fantasy Writer

  1. Just a little nitpicky concern: “you have countries that spend [. . .] 2 miles of tunnel under Boston.”

    I would hope the Boston subway system has more than 2 miles of tunnel (there’s roughly 65.5 miles of track in the Boston subway).

    1. Thanks for dropping by- I was thinking of the ‘Big Dig.’ I supposed I should have looked it up. I guess according to wikipedia, anyway, it was more like 3.5 miles at $14B- that’s about $3M per foot of tunnel.

      Apologies for garbling the tunnel but it is mind boggling how much is spent on public works. Even a nameless overpass is often more than $10M. Not saying it’s a bad thing to have an over pass or even a $3M per foot tunnel, more just amazed at the amount of resources as western country can marshal for such tasks.

      Cheers.

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