Thursday, March 17, 2011

Writing 101: Steal Ideas from History

I want to start off with a guessing game. Below are three historical anecdotes. Two are true and one is false. Can you guess which is the fake?

1. In the late fifteenth century, Swiss officials summoned an infestation of beetles to court on charges of destroying grain supplies. The beetles, however, failed to appear.

2. In the 1670s, a mob of angry Dutch people killed and ate their head of government.

3. During one night of the Austro-Turkish War of 1787, two units of the Austrian army engaged in a drunken argument that quickly erupted into a full-blown battle against each other, leaving around ten thousand soldiers dead or wounded.

Okay, think you've got it?




If you picked 3 as the dud, congratulations! Although this was kind of a trick question because even that one is a real story; it's just probably not true. Those wayward beetles and hungry Dutch people, however, are. But don't despair if you guessed wrong. My point, of course, is that reality really is stranger than fiction. History is a goldmine of outrageous stories, and happily, you can "steal" ideas from it with abandon!

I know a lot of you are cringing or groaning right now. Unfortunately, public school turns many of us off from history completely. In the U.S. at least it's taught as a series of dry, lifeless events perpetrated by dead white men. But if you take a chance on the stories your high school textbooks neglected to mention, or if you approach history the way real historians do -- as a collection of mismatched puzzle pieces to be questioned and analyzed -- you might be pleasantly surprised by how strange and exciting it can be.

Now, this post is not about writing historical fiction. I greatly admire historical fiction writers, since the amount of research involved is beyond daunting to me. But stealing ideas from history for use in a fantasy or contemporary novel is the lazy woman's way. You get all the juicy bits without having to worry about that pesky thing called "accuracy."

Let me give you an example from my own work. While skimming through the book China's Golden Age: Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty, I came across mention of a tiger who found its way into a city and settled down in a minister's ancestral shrine before a general killed it with a crossbow. Being a fan of tigers, my reaction went something like "AWESOME," and then, "Bummer about it dying, though."

I was at that time planning my own story, set in a culture based on pre-modern China. I decided I could incorporate that tiger incident as a major plot point. Because I was writing fantasy, I didn't have to get the details exactly right. I decided the people I was writing about considered tigers to be sacred, so they couldn't kill it -- instead, the tiger left on its own after doing what the plot required. Hurrah! I'm now finished with the story, and my beta readers have been enthusiastic about the tiger plotline. And it wouldn't have existed if I hadn't been reading a little history.

If you read Michael's post last week about asking why and what if, the wheels might be turning in your head right about now. The key to stealing ideas from history is to find something that jumps out at you and then start asking questions about it.

At this point some of you may be thinking, yes, this is all well and good, but how am I supposed to find these strange and exciting parts of history? Truthfully, it will take a little detective work on your part, but probably no more than the rest of your research will. (You ARE doing research, right?) Here are some tips to help you out:

  • To make this task less intimidating, remember that you really only need bits and pieces. Don't feel like you need to sit down with a lengthy narrative and study it carefully. Like I said, details aren't critical when you're just mining for ideas. Wikipedia can be a big help if you dig into the more obscure topics.

  • If you're basing a fantasy culture on a real one, consult sources that include anecdotes from the history of the region. That book on Tang Dynasty China I linked before is a good example.

  • The kind of history you should be aiming for is personal. The large-scale changes of nations aren't going to help you much. For this reason, consider looking into primary sources, in particular things like letters and journals. They can be difficult to read at times, but you're just looking for the gist. Go to Amazon and type in "eyewitness history" for ideas.

  • A lot of the most outrageous stories involve royalty and nobility. Fortunately, there tend to be a lot of records about them. Pick a royal family (think outside the Tudors box) and start looking into its characters and dramas.

  • Branch out from that white-male-dominated version of history you learned in school. Contrary to popular belief, women didn't experience or change history less than men; it's just not as commonly written and read about. Similarly, if you were educated in a Western country, look outside the history of Europe, the U.S., and Canada. Civilizations thrived all over the world for thousands of years before Europeans came along. Expand your mind and discover the escapades humans everywhere have been involved in!

  • And what about other marginalized peoples? Slaves have lived on every continent (and still do). Homosexuality has, at various times and places, been reviled and revered. There have always been people with disabilities. Try to find their stories!

  • Know any history buffs? Ask them to tell you their favorite stories. My boyfriend is majoring in history and it's been a passion of his since he was a kid. I call him my personal history teacher. "Tell me some story from history about... siblings," I'll say, and he'll think for a minute and come up with something.

Contemporary writers can do this, too! Even if your story is set in modern day, you can take inspiration from history. History is about people, after all, and although people can be radically different across time and place, our basic dramas of family, friendship, love, and desire remain the same.

Next time you're starved for ideas, have run into a corner on your story, or are doing research for worldbuilding, make sure you don't forget to check this hidden treasure chest. I hope this post has inspired you to dig deeper, or for those history haters out there, at least made you a little less scared. Good luck, and happy researching!


Pam Harris said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Pam Harris said...

Such a great post! I know my cousin would love this since she teaches history. And her students can attest to this--she does everything in her power to not make her lessons dry and boring. In fact, she often runs ideas by me first since I've always hated history. If it keeps me entertained, then it's a winner. :)

Marquita Hockaday said...

This is an awesome post! As my wonderful cuz mentioned above, I do try to make history fun for my students. I know most students find it dry, and although I love it there are some parts of history that even bore ME. I never thought about taking this approach with my fiction, though. Since I know so much about various times in history, I might just have to dig something up and revamp it for my next contemp. WIP. Great post :D

Holly Dodson said...

Wow, Lauren, this is a really great post! And funny enough, this is exactly what I've done with my newest WIP. :D It definitely works, you've just got to find that thing that sparks your interest. The event that makes you want to know, "what if?" ;)

Sophia Richardson said...

I have The Penguin Book of the Renaissance on my bedside table right now for just this reason. The family and city-state dynamics alone should be stellar and I know there was an awesome anecdote about a murder in there somewhere.
- Sophia.

Lori M. Lee said...

I absolutely love history so I agree with this post 100%. Awesome examples too!

Tere Kirkland said...

Yes! I get tons of ideas from history, so I love this post! I'm a big researcher, and I've been inspired by history and culture to write whole novels. Primary sources are still being discovered and published that shed light on the past.

Michael L. Martin Jr. said...

All this time I never thought to type in "eyewitness history" into Amazon. So simple. I just did it. Amazing results. Thanks for the tip.

Works on Google Books too, which is great because you get to peek inside some of the books.

Alicia Gregoire said...

Great post!

Krispy said...

Oh good, my love for the weird, random, and historical actually comes in handy! :) Yay history!

Yahong Chi said...

Holy cow, these are such good ideas! Thanks so much!