Tuesday, December 7, 2010

A date which will live in infamy.

Yes, today is the 69th anniversary of the attacks on Pearl Harbor, I’m pretty sure you all knew that. I hope you did, anyway. Now that the important history bit is out of the way, let’s learn how we can use events like this in our writing.

President Roosevelt delivered his well-known speech, beginning with the words up above(the infamy bit) just a day after the attacks, while men were still trapped in capsized ships, and rescue workers were furiously trying to get to them.

Once rescue operations subsided, the salvage work began. Within six months, five battleships and two cruisers had been re-floated and were undergoing repairs. One further ship was salvaged but had to be scrapped, two others remain in the waters at Pearl to this day.

Almost seventy years later, we look back on the events of this day in 1941, and we see all of the impact, the ripple effect, the moronic conspiracy nuts who believe the whole thing was masterminded by FDR, and we see history.

A single event, a single day, a single battle 69 years earlier, and we see history. This is the sort of history that your fictionalized worlds need. In the Course Books, the main storyline takes place about 80 years after the Kamian Succession Wars, and the impact that conflict had on the verse is still very clear. The Heritage Festival mentioned in the Path to Ascension is a tradition which began as a result of the mass re-locations of war refugees.

Real history gives you a lot of great examples to draw from. Thutmose IV is considered the world’s first archeologist. In 1400 B.C., he led a team to excavate the Great Sphinx of Giza, which at the time had become buried up to its shoulders in sand. The Giza Necropolis was abandoned, only treasure hunters and looters still went there. But young Thutmose had a dream, not a Martin Luther King Junior-type dream, more of “oh, god, I’m falling!” dream. The sphinx came to him and told him that if he cleared away the sand, it would make him king. Keep in mind that at the time, lil’ Thutmose was not set up to be the successor to the throne.

Whether you think it’s pertinent or not, a long and storied history will add a great deal of depth to your work. I’ve mentioned Lord of the Rings a few times, while the main trilogy may be all most people are aware of, there are entire shelves full of other books Tolken wrote just to explain them. The Silmarilian and many others, all intended to help tell the whole story.

This is why most writers aren’t willing to take on the daunting task of creating a second world. It’s just to hard, why invent all that history when you can just drop your book on earth and use our history?

For realistic fiction, this works out ok. You have to know your history, of course, and you have to know your setting. Trying to write a novel set anywhere other than where you live is really hard. Going back to examples from my writer’s club, there was a girl who was writing a very nice romance novel. But she wanted it to be set in London, a place she not only had never visited, but also had barely researched. The end result was a setting so poorly described that she could have done a global find-and-replace of “London” with “New York” and the story wouldn’t have changed at all. Forget not using any slang or the disturbing lack of British people, she just didn’t know anything about the city.

Then you can get into my arch-nemesis, that series I will not mention by name about the angsty teenage boy with magical powers. The author had the good sense to set her book in a place she was familiar with, but she didn’t really bother much with the whole ‘history’ bit. She has created this entire society of magic-users who somehow live secretly within the normal, modern society that we are all familiar with. Despite being so well-hidden that the government isn’t even aware of them, there are somehow easily enough within one section of Brittan to fill an entire football stadium.

Ok, so stretching suspension of disbelief a little here, but when you’ve got the free-energy equivalent of magic, you can pretty much say whatever the hell you want. “Nobody notices them because of magic” and then waving your arms and making woo-woo noises is pretty much mandatory. But what that quthor fails to even touch on is the historical and cultural impact. What were the wizards in their castle doing during World War II? When England was being bombed day and night, were they up there on their broomsticks, shooting lasers out of their magic wands? Or were they just hunkering down in the basement, with blackout curtains over the windows?

Given the super-powers of wizards in her story, the fact that every eleven-year-old boy knows how to instantly kill someone just by saying the right latin-sounding word, AND can teleport, how come none of them killed Hitler? Even if we accept that there are no Jewish wizards, they pretty much all have to be anti-Semites with a huge grudge against their own country to explain why WWII wasn’t over 15 minutes after it started.

You can try the “they didn’t want to interfere in the none-magic world” excuse, but it breaks down a little when every single character has god-like powers. I’m sure once the kids learn “Resurectus-nowicuss!” someone is going to start a cult.

So on the first-world side; you have to take history into account, or look like a jerk. Or just not build such a huge secret network. On the second-world side, you need to create your own history. This is time-consuming and hard, but exciting! Use examples from history, then adapt them. You can even make them bigger, more exciting, and tailored to fit your story.

On the Course Books Wiki, I’ve got dozens of pages about historical events that have nothing to do with the story. I’ve got dozens more that set up vital plot-points. It’s helped me to build a much more exciting world, and inspired a lot of story events that I otherwise may not have thought of.

So get to work, and make your own date live in infamy.

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