Friday, August 8, 2014

Writing: Know your history

Strahov Monastery - photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
When you write non-fiction, it is important to have your facts straight. Being able to reference historical information to support your writing is essential. If you're writing about the future of publishing, be able to discuss publishing's past. If you're writing about a CEO's rise to power, give credit to events in that person's youth that put her where she is today. If you want to be considered an expert on molecular biology, reflect on the various people and theories that make up what the science is today.

But if you are writing fiction, history is meaningless, right? Let's leave out the obvious historical fiction and modern adventure/thrillers that rely on knowing past events. Would you still need history to create an epic fantasy that takes place in a fantasy realm, like J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit? Or how about a grand work of science fiction like Frank Herbert's Dune? Neither novel takes place on Earth, or in a time that we know, so is history all that important?

If you want a reader to believe in an unbelievable story, you bet it is. Bilbo Baggins may have lived in Middle Earth, in a hole-in-the-ground house in the Misty Mountains, but without the extensive knowledge of Norse mythology or an intimate familiarity with the historic background of fairy tales, we as readers would not be able to envision the hobbit's world or paint a picture of the creatures that live within it.

There may not be a real desert planet in the universe called Arrakis, but if Frank Herbert had not
experienced the conservation efforts put forth by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to stabilize erosion in Oregon, readers would not have been able to see the desert planet as it was meant to be experienced: a living, breathing planet - giant sandworms, spice, and all. The political subterfuge would be as alien as the creatures that live within the novel, were it not for historical similarities to the Roman and Persian empires.

So yes, a firm grasp of history is necessary if you want an unbelievably believable story. This is what I was thinking about when I read two very different novels last month. The first book, Samantha Shannon's The Bone Season, was technically a dystopian fantasy but I personally classify as steampunk (because of it's alternate history). The second, Dan Brown's Inferno, is a modern mystery thriller. Both required an extensive knowledge of historic events in order to make an unbelievable plot believable.

In The Bone Season, Paige Mahoney is a clairvoyant living in a futuristic London where people like her are persecuted. She is captured and taken to a penal colony where she and other clairvoyants are forced to fight for strange inter-dimensional beings. This 2059 future isn't filled with computers capable of artificial intelligence or floating cars. Instead, it almost feels like technology, and fashion, froze in the late 1800's. There are technological advancements, but they are fantastical in nature - focusing on the military state being able to hunt down clairvoyants.

To be believable, Shannon had to paint a landscape fully compatible with a Victorian-era future. Because she changed history, she had to make the new history plausible. So she added elements of the United Kingdom's recent past with references to past monarchs, famous places, and subtle changes to events (the "Molly Riots" I believe are attributed to the Irish riots of 1969). It is still a confusing setting and does not fully match up to a progressive timeline, but it provides a familiarity that allows a reader to set aside these lapses in order to follow the plot.

Dan Brown uses historic texts and people to immerse readers in the mystery (and rather believable biological thriller) that is his Inferno. He takes Dante Alighieri's famous poem and turns it into a cryptic treasure map that the art historian protagonist, Robert Langon, must decipher before a biological weapon is released into the world. This author knows way more about Dante's history than I do. And that knowledge makes the book that much more foreboding and exciting. Just as in his other books, for art to become the answer, knowledge of the history behind the art becomes imperative.

How can subtle changes to Boticelli's Map of Hell mean anything if Mr. Brown doesn't inform the reader about what the map portrays? And, without giving away the ending, there needs to be a strong understanding of genetics and disease in order to make the outcome, scary as it is, feel very real and possible. In order to do this, Dan Brown had to do a lot of research not just in early art history, but in modern scientific fields as well. This made reading Inferno that much more exciting, thrilling, and frighteningly believable.

I enjoyed both books, one being very fantastical and one being very plausible, because they each used history as a means to drive the story. Whether it's to enhance the image of a dystopian future, or to propel a ticking time bomb plot, knowledge of the past - ancient and recent - creates a world in which a reader may suspend disbelief without sacrificing believability. So whether you are writing fiction or non-fiction, be sure that you have a very firm grasp on history.

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