Six Tips for Taking Inspiration From History

A black and white image of San Francisco harbor in 1851. The bay is full of sailing ships.

Now imagine they were space ships.

Building the history of your setting is a tricky business. It’s something even great authors struggle with, from Rowling to Tolkien. So it’s no surprise that Adrienne asked us this question:

How do you create interesting histories for fictional worlds, whether they be fantasy or sci-fi?

I may be missing the point but it seems to me that some basic guidelines to creating the history of a country would be important to creating interesting and varied cultures. But at this point I can’t find any guides to this despite numerous google searches. So how do you, in the most basic of steps, create a history for a fictional world, country, culture, or people?

While there are numerous ways to construct a fictional history, the easiest and most straightforward is to borrow from real history. Planet Earth has all kinds of exciting history just waiting for a storyteller’s eye. However, while this is the easiest method available, it is by no means an automatic success. Try these tips to get you started.

1. Study History

A man in an orange robe, studying a thick book. Now where did I put that red pen?

Everyone should study history, lest you hear an old maxim about being doomed to repeat it. But it’s doubly important if you’re going to be creating history. I don’t mean memorizing dates of battles and names of historical leaders – that’s just trivia. What you need is an understanding of history.  

History is a complex, fascinating mess. People who look at specific data points without an understanding of the whole can come away with warped views. For example, when viewing facts in isolation, it’s easy to conclude that the American Civil War wasn’t about slavery at all. Proponents of this argument point to how the Northern states were extremely racist in their own right and how Lincoln himself wasn’t an abolitionist.

Those two facts are true, but they don’t mean what some people think they mean. Yes, the North was* quite racist. Many Northerners viewed blacks as inherently inferior to whites. But they were still against slavery. There are multiple levels of racism. Nowadays, nearly everyone is against slavery, but plenty of white folks will actively resist people of color moving into their neighborhoods. It’s also true that for most of his life, Lincoln wasn’t an abolitionist. He believed laws that protected slavery should be obeyed, even though he personally hated it. But his dislike of slavery was known well enough to fuel sedition in the confederate states, and during the war he shifted to embrace full abolition.

Neither of these data points actually shows that the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, but if viewed without a greater understanding of how history functions, it can seem like they do. If you attempt to create history without understanding it, you will have similar results.

Fortunately, you don’t need years of study to gain an understanding of history.* The internet is full to the brim with talented people who will happily share their knowledge in an easy to understand format. Personally, I recommend Youtube channels like Crash Course, Extra Credits, and CGP Grey, but there are countless more to choose from.

2. Borrow Generalities, Not Specifics

The original capital after being burned by in 1814. If you’re not sure why sensitivity is important, remind Americans about the time Canada burned the White House.

When looking at history, we consider real people and real cultures. Many of those cultures still exist today and will not take kindly to being portrayed incorrectly in fiction. This is a potential problem for any culture, but it is most urgent with cultures that face a history of oppression. The last thing we want is for our stories to heap further injustice on those who have already suffered.

That’s why you’ll want to borrow the themes and broad strokes of a historical situation but not the specific cultures or people. For example, let’s say you’re using Commodore Perry’s arrival in Japan as your inspiration. In that event, a squadron of American warships arrived in Japan and demanded the country become more favorable to Western trade. This demand was backed up by the threat of violence. Japanese weaponry was no match for Perry’s gunboats, and so the shogun capitulated.

The most vital aspect of this scenario is a powerful country pushing a less powerful country around. The powerful country is prepared to use violence if it doesn’t get what it wants. That’s rife with conflict already. You can borrow more broad strokes if you like, such as the less powerful country having a history of isolation.

But in most cases you shouldn’t borrow the specifics of Japanese culture. If you’re not an expert, it’s likely you will get important details wrong, which will damage the story and possibly stray into offensive territory. Likewise, avoid biographical details. It’s fine if the leader of your less powerful country has recently died, leaving the capitol in a state of disarray, but don’t copy+paste the biography of Tokugawa Ieyoshi into your story.  

The specifics of culture and character will come from your own worldbuilding, and we’ve got a number of articles to get you started.

3. Research a Situation With Conflict

A black and white painting of soldiers in the warring states. They don’t call it the Warring States period for nothing.

Okay, you’ve had some fun watching Youtube history videos, and you know how to avoid coming off as disrespectful of other cultures. Now it’s time to steal some historical inspiration!

You need conflict to drive your story, so research a historical situation with conflict. Of course, all historical periods have conflict of some sort, even if it isn’t obvious on the surface. Many Americans imagine the 1950s as a time of great contentment, but in fact it was when the civil rights movement really took off, a time of conflict indeed.

So you’ll need to drill down a bit to find the kind of conflict you want for your story. No matter what kind of conflict you’re interested in, history has something for you. Do you want a tale of deadly politics at the heart of a powerful empire? Then late-stage Roman history is for you. Perhaps you’d prefer open warfare between many factions, each vying for dominance as alliances shift. In that case, the Warring States period of Chinese history is your oyster. Or maybe you’re after a more optimistic story of a hero who brings peace to a warring land. Then may I recommend you study the history of how Hiawatha united the Haudenosaunee into a powerful confederacy.

If you’re feeling confident, you can pick more than one historical conflict to inspire your story. Perhaps you want the migrational warfare of the Crusades, but since you’re not interested in a religious conflict, you combine it with the Cold War to create a scenario where knights ride under the banner of capitalism to drive out the evils of a regulated economy. This mix and match approach to history is not for beginners, but it’s fun once you master it.

4. Look Backwards From the Conflict

A Korean turtle ship in a museum. Korean museums are surprisingly well armed.

Once you’ve chosen the conflict to base your setting on, it’s time to work backward and establish the events that led up to this point. Remember: focus on facts relevant to the conflict. The purpose of fictional history is to help your world stay consistent, not to fill a textbook. Look at the factions involved in your conflict. How did they come to the place they are now? What happened in the past to create the inequities that are driving the current conflict? Which of those past events will the factions use to justify their actions?

Let’s say you’re using the 1592 Japanese invasion of Korea as the inspiration for your conflict, but you’ve set it in space, with the Orion Confederacy playing the part of Japan and Alpha Centauri standing in for Korea. Your story is about a large and powerful space nation invading its vulnerable neighbor, and you want some historical context. Space nations rarely invade for no reason, after all.

Historically, Japan had just come out of a long period of civil war, with many factions vying for dominance in battle after bloody battle. During that war, much of Japan’s industry was re-tooled for military production, and huge swaths of the population were drafted into the army. Toyotomi Hideyoshi eventually unified the country, but he inherited a land where everything was geared around war. Invading Korea seemed like a logical use for all of Japan’s surplus military strength.

I’ve just left out a ton of information, but those basics are all you’ll need. The Orion Confederacy is a coalition of many worlds, and until recently each of those worlds wanted to be in charge. They built huge fleets of warships and mobilized most of their population to fight. Now that they have peace, the Orion leaders face a problem: without war, the economies of their worlds will collapse. And so they set their sights on Alpha Centauri.

If you want to add extra complexity, you can look further into historical events. In the real world. Japan’s eventual goal was China, center of power and culture for the world. Korea was meant to be a warm up. In this space parallel, you can build the history of Earth as the stagnant home of humanity, a prize the Orions dream of taking. This brings Earth’s own politics and history into the equation.

5. Simplify for Narrative Strength

A battle from the War of the Roses Pretty much everyone in this picture is related to the king.

You already know that the history of your setting should be relevant to your story’s conflict. You don’t need extensive notes about the development of pottery styles, unless your story is about a bitter feud between gangs of vase-makers.*

But history is a messy, complicated affair, and even concentrating on the conflict isn’t always enough. Consider the War of the Roses. On the surface, this was a conflict between the houses of Lancaster and York over who would be king of England, but it is so much more complex. The warring houses weren’t neatly divided into castles and territories; their conflict was based on a family tree that would make your head spin.

In real history, that mind-bogglingly complex tree was very important. Loyalties and alliances hinged on excruciating details of genealogy. Participants in the conflict really cared who someone’s second cousin twice removed was. But modern readers almost certainly will not.

That’s why if you were going to use the War of the Roses as inspiration for your story, you’d want to simplify the history down to a manageable level. Perhaps you’d separate out the important combatants into seven or eight major houses, each with a recognizable animal as its symbol, and a catchy saying to sum up its ethos. Also, a lot of ravens for some reason.

This rule holds true no matter what historical period you’re using. The history is there to help you tell a story, and once it becomes too bloated to do that, it’s time to get out the red pen.

6. Consider Magic and Technology

An artist's portrayal of NASA's Orion spacecraft. The space race would have been pretty different if we’d had one of these.

The final step in taking inspiration from history is to consider how the speculative elements of your story will affect the events you’ve borrowed. Magic is notoriously hard to come by in the real world, and different levels of technology will have a huge impact.

Let’s return to the example of using the 1592 Japanese invasion of Korea. In the decades leading up to that conflict, Japan’s constant civil wars led to several advancements in musketry. Meanwhile the Koreans had been developing better cannons. This meant that the Japanese had a strong advantage on land, where their powerful lines of musketeers swept enemies from the field. On the other hand, it gave Korea the advantage in naval power, where ships slugged it out with cannons.

It’s tempting to recreate this dynamic between the Orion Confederacy and Alpha Centauri. If the Orions have the advantage on the ground and the Centauri have the advantage in space, surely that will even out, right? The problem is that in the 1592 war, land power and naval power were close to equivalent, but that’s not true in a space-opera setting.

If your setting has space ships, they will far outweigh any advantage of ground combat. All the Japanese had to do was get their troops to shore and then they were relatively safe from Korean ships. Orion soldiers would be vulnerable to constant bombardment by Centauri ships floating overhead. This is too big of an advantage, and it means the Centauri are no longer the underdogs.

To preserve the critical dynamics of this conflict, you could instead give the Centauri faster but less powerful ships. This would let them dictate the terms of engagement and execute clever tactics, but they’d never stand up to the Orions in a head-on battle.

Developing a setting’s history is one of the trickiest parts of worldbuilding, but it’s undeniably important. If your setting’s history is blank, you’ll have nothing to keep you grounded. This is how stories like Buffy the Vampire Slayer end up with a different apocalypse scenario every month: no one ever planned out the setting’s history to see what options were on the table. Building your own history will help protect your story from inconsistencies, and real history is a great place to start.

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  1. Dave L

    The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam by Barbara Tuchman is one of my favorite history books.
    Examines the real reasons behind the Protestant Reformation, The American Revolution, and the Vietnam War, and much else.

    It was written over thirty years ago, and is still frighteningly relevant.

    “Barbara Tuchman was the greatest popular history writer of the late 20th century, and this is her finest book: a work of history for those who don’t read history. Unlike the typical history which tackles a period and/or region, this book examines, in quite of bit of detail, four instances of folly in human history. This turns out to be a remarkably useful device for learning about the kinds of events that drive human organizations to places they don’t often go — and in these four cases, shouldn’t have gone.”

  2. Naraoia

    Since you mention the Haudenosaunee, do you have any book recommendations for a complete novice to learn about their society, culture(s) and history? (I’m particularly interested in kinship and government/power structures)

    • Oren Ashkenazi

      I would definitely recommend the Extra Credit series on the subject, but as far as books go I’m afraid your google search is as good as mine.

      • Naraoia

        I finally got round to watching those videos, they’re pretty cool indeed. I’ve got to say I love the part where Jigonsaseh gives Big T the dressing-down of his life. And he sees the error of his ways and turns into the great leader his people need. It’s such a great story that I don’t even care if it’s true…

        I will henceforth picture her as this unflappable little old lady who tells the most powerful chief in the Five Nations off for being a bloodthirsty bully in the same way she’d scold her grandson for tracking mud into her longhouse.

  3. SunlessNick

    Great article!

    For example, when viewing facts in isolation, it’s easy to conclude that the American Civil War wasn’t about slavery at all.

    There’s a reason proponents of that view never quote sources from the Confederacy.

  4. Evie

    One important thing to consider, and I know it runs counter to ideas that have been brought up on the blog in the past.

    There’s history, the study of causes and effects in the evolution of human societies and the world. And there’s history, the popular narrative of “how our world came to be as it is”. The former is the scholarly view of history ; the second, sometime called “popular history”, is essentially modern society’s take on mythology.

    The later is also what most people have in mind when you talk about history. And what most people are likely to talk about if they talk about “history”. They’re much more likely to talk about Perry’s black ships (a striking visual image referring to a specific larger-than-life figure and his deeds) than they are to talk about the general trend of western poweres forcing non-western nations to play by their rules. Much more likely to mention Rosa Parks refusing to leave her seat or MLK’s “I have a dream” speech than to talk about the general causes and effects of Civil Rights. Much more likely to talk about Hitler’s charisma than about social and economic conditions in 1930s Germany, and about Churchill’s “We’ll fight them on the beach…” than about the logistical (un)reality of a Nazi invasion of England. About the death of Ogedei Khan causing the Mongols to turn back rather than about the serious difficulties the Mongols would have faced pushing into western Europe.

    Ultimately, while it may be good for you, writer, to understand the general trend and tendencies, it wouldn’t be very realistic for characters (except, perhaps, characters who are trained historians) to discuss those. What everyday people in your world will know about, what they’ll mention, what they’ll have as part of their culture is the mytho-history. The heroes and the villains, and the deeds each is famous for.

    • Cay Reet

      This is a post on how you go about writing a history for your own world. And for that, you, the writer, need to understand how it works. There’s no need for your readers to understand everything you had in mind when you put the history together. You need to understand how certain things happened, so you can use that for your story. Your readers won’t know about most of the stuff you thought up, because it never enters the narrative. You’re not saying ‘this invasion of Alpha Centauri happens precisely like Japan invaded Korea once.’ You just look at the factors which led to it and think up something similar for your own story. Your readers will probably never notice where you took inspiration from.

      • Evie

        I’m not saying the post is wrong, far from. I’m pointing out an additional consideration, not disagreeing with the actual suggestions.

        That additional consideration being that, as much as those of us versed in history know “Great People” history to be wrong…at the end of the day, it’s not History with its trends and tendencies, that shape popular perception. It’s always been about the stories, the beloved heroes and the reviled villains, who (allegedly) have shaped the world – the things a general human audience can relate to.

        And it’s the same with fictional history. Put faces and names to your fictional history ; create the striking moments and the deeds those names are associated with, and people, both fictional characters and real readers, are much more likely to be able to *relate* to your history.

        • Cay Reet

          Well, since stories hinge on characters, that’s definitely going to happen.

  5. Sam Victors

    This is what I’m planning for my other story idea. Its kind of a GOT-esque world, only without the magic or monsters, just another world that anachronistic in cultures. For example,

    One Northern Nation is modeled after Britain, the English Civil War, Protestant and Catholic conflicts, and Jacobite Rebellions, and the Crusades. The Nation is divided between North and South.

    One Middle Nation is modeled after Greco-Roman and Egyptian society. Its polytheistic, pansexual and sex-positive, with conflicts modeled after Ancient wars and feuds.

    One Southern Nation is modeled after Medieval Middle-East and Africa.

    Other countries are modeled after Vikings, Indigenous Peoples, Celts and Picts, and Highlanders.

    The main plot of the story follows the lives of six main characters, each making their way to the top of the country they’re in, until they learn they are all cousins being puppet-controlled by their grandmother, who seeks to use them to revive an old dynasty that once ruled the world.

    • Jeremiah

      Not a bad setup. The story sounds solid. I hope you see it through!

  6. Bel

    I would love to read that vase story.

    “You smashed my plate! Prepare to have many others frisbee-thrown at you!”

    “No, I will hit your head with a vase!”

    “Aha, but I have made a bowl in the exact shape of my face! It’s a shield!”

  7. S.T. Ockenner

    “unless your story is about a bitter feud between gangs of vase-makers.”
    Someone should write that story, then also make them have the power to temporarily change the color of marbles and adjust a cat’s meow by one octave.

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