Using History as a Story’s Backbone

Over the last few years, I’ve managed to cultivate a few writing practices which help me build my stories. While on an extended weekend vacation, I went back to an old gem and rediscovered its virtues: history.

And no, I don’t mean actually studying real history to tell my own stories, although I also enjoy that. I’m talking about writing history.

When I was a server in a restaurant (where I met Jessie!), I worked mornings, which tended to be crowded for a short burst of a lunch rush.

In those moments when I wasn’t running between the kitchen and my tables, I would stand against one wall — with a clear view of the restaurant floor — and write.

At this point, about 2012-2014, I had not really started writing WoEM at all, but I was actively taking notes and building outlines for the world in which my first novel would ultimately take place.

But instead of just taking notes with no clear direction, I wrote out the fictional history of my world, describing how we got from point A to point B, and beyond.

I filled tiny spiral notebooks with pages and pages of this written history, fleshing out the the various, places, peoples, and events that shaped it. This was the beginning of my millennium-spanning timeline for Úr’Dan.

Using History to Build Narrative

I use written history of my fictional universe as a form of world building. It helps me contextualize the world, creating a framework in which to create individual characters and stories.

Here’s how it works (for me):

  1. I write in full sentences. Remember reading history textbooks in elementary school, when large events were given a generalized summary of a few paragraphs, or maybe a page or two? That’s how I write this history. This helps me explain how or why something happened rather than just using a bullet point to state that it did happen.
  2. I allow myself to be vague in my descriptions. If I haven’t decided on a historical figure’s name, or the particulars of how a specific battle was won (or lost), I leave the description vague. After all, this is just a form of note-taking; none of this written history is canon, so I allow myself some flexibility.
  3. It helps me get away from the WhatWhere, and Who, and focus on the How and WhyAs I stated above, explaining why a historical event occurred and the impact it had helps me contextualize the world. What previous events contributed to this? How do people feel about it? What implications will it have down the road?
  4. I can start with the big picture, and then zero in on specific details I find intriguing. Starting from a top-down historical perspective often leads to narrowing my own ideas to a single individual, or even a single day on which something historic happened. This is the reverse of beginning with a character and building the story around them. Instead, I have a general concept or time period in mind, and then I uncover which characters would be more interesting to explore within that framework.

Like I said, none of this written history is canon for my world. It just helps me flesh out the details. If I’m working on a particular story, having this written history as a reference point helps me decide if any further exposition is needed for the current story.

Alternatively, by writing out this history, I often stumble upon narrative threads that I want to follow further.

Do you use this type of historical world-building in your writing? Let me know in the comments!

Steve D

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