Things To Know When Writing Historical Fiction & Fictional History

I find that there are some pretty knowledge gaps and misconceptions that people trying to write historical fiction and fictional history end up falling prey to. So to help those of you aiming to write this kind of thing, here's an article to clear up some of the misconceptions and point you in the direction of a few things you might need to research.

Table of Contents

You should watch out for the urge to romanticize and/or demonize certain time periods.

It's awfully easy to think of the Medieval period as this wonderful era of courtly love and dashing knights, or as an era of endless torture and constant soul-crushing oppression, but neither one of these extremes are true. And the same goes for pretty much any time and place you can name. Most time periods are complicated, with their good sides and their bad sides. Even the best and brightest were only human and had their flaws and shortcomings, and in even the most bigoted and prejudiced eras someone was calling out for compassion and tolerance. For one quick example of the latter, there are some who believe (or seem to believe) that all men were raging misogynist pigs during the Victorian era. Yet, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle often featured intelligent women who acted outside of social norms and treated them as sympathetic. (Irene Adler in A Scandal in Bohemia is a good example.) So whichever point in history you're going for, understand that it would have been neither all good nor all bad.

You should never assume that anything worked the same way forever.

It's easy to think that the way things work now is probably how they've always worked, or at the very least is how they've worked for a very long time. But this is never a safe assumption to make. Anything, no matter how commonplace it seems today, could have been very different in the past - even the fairly recent past. For example, magnetic stripe credit cards are everywhere these days, but you wouldn't find anyone in the 50's or 60's using one as banks didn't start issuing them to the public until the early 70's. The practice of dating, which started around the early 20th century, has entailed different things for different generations.

Another mistake along these lines is assuming that one part of the past worked like another part of the past. For example, I occasionally see people and works that assume the 1940s was as gender essentialist as the 1950s. In fact, that gender essentialism came about in the 50s as a panicked backlash to an ongoing breakdown of gender roles that had reached a fever pitch during World War II. The Leave It To Beaver lifestyle was essentially a post-war product.

So don't assume that something in one time period worked the same way as in another time period, even if the difference is only a decade. Things change faster than you might thing!

Philosophical boundaries and divides that you're used to now may not have existed way back when.

One example is the perceived boundary between the natural and the supernatural. Many people see these two things as natural opposites, and sometimes treat them as antagonistic forces. This results in tropes such as magic vs. technology, magic dying out as people come to rely on technology, and so on. However, this divide didn't exist for most of history. The natural and the supernatural were one and the same. This didn't mean that science was magic, but rather that magic was simply another natural phenomenon that you could harness and study just like anything else. It had rules that it was expected to consistently follow. Supernatural beings such as faeries were as natural to the land as birds and squirrels.

So when did the idea that magic and technology were opposing forces? To the best that I can tell, it happened at some point in the second half of the 20th century. Before that point, magic and fairytales were fairly popular, and no one seemed to have any notion that magic and technology would be at odds with each other. In L. Frank Baum's Oz series, the character of Tik-Tok was essentially a robot living in a magical land. During World War II the idea of gremlins - supernatural creatures that sabotaged airplanes - became part of the public consciousness. In 1950, Rosemary Clooney sang a song about a goblin who exchanged a malfunctioning flying broom for an airplane.

So what happened?

After this point, magic and fairytales largely fell out of favor. There was a much bigger focus on technology and the wonders of modern science (no small thanks to the newly-invented consumer culture), and Westerns sated people's hankerings for old time adventures. JRR Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings at this point, which featured a world in which magic was fading out as it marched on toward something resembling modernity.

Those who were children at this time and literally witnessed modern science and technology push out and displace fairies and magic would have come of age in the 1970's, which is also the time when people were beginning to take a dim view of all this modern technology and living. The economy was in bad shape and pollution was rampant. Many started to think that a "return to the land" was the answer. (The sustainable living magazine Mother Earth News was first published in January of 1970.) At this point, fantasy set in magical, Medieval-esque lands got popular.

In 1988, The Turkey City Lexicon: A Primer For SF Workshops defined "Tabloid Weird," a term that The Turkey City Workshop had invented to deride stories that mixed science fiction and fantasy elements. In their view, such elements represented fundamentally incompatible worldviews. Through this we can induce that by the late 80's, there were a fair number of people who felt very strongly that magic and science were diametrically opposed.

So the idea that magic and technology were natural enemies didn't even exist until sometime around the 70's and 80's. Yet we often treat it the way things simply are and apply it to mythological and folkloric elements that predate this concept by centuries. This isn't to say that the trope is bad in and of itself, but rather that we should think twice before shoehorning it where it doesn't actually belong.

Another big divide that too many people take for granted is Western dualism. Based largely in Christianity, it tends to divide opposing factions into good/evil camps, or at the very least Jesus-inspired and Satan-eqsue. This concept and how it doesn't actually apply to a lot of things is explored more over here.

You can't rely on laws to tell you what people actually did or didn't do.

Many people assume that they can always infer how people generally behaved based on what was or wasn't legal, but this really isn't the case. For example, many assume that because it was legal in the Middle Ages for people to marry in their early teens, means that early marriage and sex were commonplace. But records show that the nobility and wealthy merchants tended to marry quite a bit later - men in their early twenties, women somewhat earlier. (When people did marry early, evidence shows that they were often expected to wait until they were older to consummate their marriage.) Likewise, in many parts of the US it's completely legal for women to go topless in public, but most of them don't actually do this in practice because it's not customary in American culture.

In addition, some laws were not heavily enforced, or were impossible to enforce effectively. After all, it's illegal to produce or sell most recreational drugs in the US, but that doesn't mean people don't do it. The Prohibition didn't stop people from drinking - people were drinking in speakeasies all over the place. The American Revolution was illegal in Britain's eyes, but that didn't stop it from happening.

So never assume that law dictated behavior, because it very often didn't.

Nobody liked being abused and oppressed.

Although we can't interview each and every slave, serf, and second-class citizen that ever lived to know how they personally thought and felt, we do know two things: One of them is that fundamental human nature has not changed since the dawn of civilization. The other is that those who were able to tell us their stories of living like this pretty much all agree that it sucked, and the techniques and tricks used to keep them in line all come down to the same basic baloney.

Here's the deal: People don't comply with governments and social mores that decent people these days would consider unfair and cruel because they somehow like it or are indifferent to being abused. Rather, they are kept in line through what is referred to as FOG (Fear, Guilt, Obligation) these days. Fear-inducing tactics can include harsh punishments for perceived misbehavior and/or threats of eternal damnation. A sense of obligation can be cultivated by teaching people that they owe their "betters" unwavering service and loyalty. Guilt can be cultivated by teaching people that certain desires or deeds are unthinkably shameful or selfish. You don't have to look very far to find numerous case examples. Just pick any country headed by a tyrant or dictator, or look into any abusive cult whose activities have been documented. Those who are oppressed, abused, and marginalized aren't happy people. They simply either can't do anything about the way they're treated, or don't believe it's possible to do anything about it. At best, they might internalize a belief that they deserved it, but they weren't really happy, and they weren't mentally unscathed.

Some people will act like people in the past never questioned anything and just accepted the status quo without complaint, which isn't at all true. Again, fundamental human nature hasn't changed, and rising up against mistreatment is human nature. One group of ancient Egyptian construction workers went on strike to protest a lack of food and other supplies. And it worked!

So never assume that people back then were just fine being abused and that they never did anything about it, because it's absolutely not true.

Signing the peace treaty didn't mean everything was okay.

Signing a peace treaty to end a war simply means that two or more factions agree to stop fighting each other if certain terms and conditions are met. It does not mean that the losing country will be treated fairly, nor does it mean that everyone is going to drop their prejudices and be friends now.

The Treaty of Versailles ended World War I, and it forced Germany to pay such steep reparations that the country's economy was ruined. This lead to massive desperation and discontent that Adolf Hitler was able to exploit to seize total power.

Signing a treaty also won't do anything to get rid of the mutual hate and distrust that everyone has for each other. Just because your government agrees to stop fighting the other, doesn't mean you're going to forget what they did to you and your people, let alone feel comfortable having them over for lunch. Sometimes this kind of tension can take decades, even generations to fix. Sometimes the people are so steeped in hateful, vengeance-oriented ideologies that treaties can do little to nothing to prevent violence from breaking out between them.

So essentially, a treaty can begin a healing process between warring factions, but it's not always a given.

The recorded word doesn't necessarily reflect how most people spoke.

Old-time texts and recordings aren't necessarily indicative of how the average person spoke back in the day. One good example is how Medieval Europeans often wrote in Latin. Another example is the Mid-Atlantic accent, which was invented in the early 20th century and appears in many old movies and was used by the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Jaqueline Kennedy, and Katherine Hepburn. It was designed to make people sound fancy and refined, and was never spoken by anyone except actors and upper-class Americans trained to do so.

Another thing to keep in mind is that through most of history, most of the writing was done by the wealthy and the upper class, who usually spoke in whichever language and dialect was associated with taste and refinement. These people tended to avoid speaking like the lower class, whose speech they usually associated with ignorance and bad manners. (Imagine how a lot of people think of "redneck" accents, and you wouldn't be far off.) This means that you can't be sure of how the servants spoke based on how the lord wrote his personal journal. Additionally, even if he did try to capture the vernacular of the servants, he may have gotten it wrong or exaggerated it to make them seem coarser and less intelligent than they really were.

Likewise, anyone who has watched cartoons as a child can probably tell you that few (if any) of the child or teenage characters in them ever spoke like real children or teens. They tended to speak how writers thought that people in those age groups spoke, which usually involved using a lot of slang that was at least several years out of date by that point.

Additionally, a work may have been written decades, if not centuries after the events it describes took place, and thus the language it uses may be closer to language used during the author's time than in the time the story describes. It might also overestimate how much slang people used, or use slang that would have been out of date or a few years ahead of its time.

Thus there are numerous reasons why the language in a given piece of media might not reflect how most people actually spoke. What this means in practice is that if you want to capture how people really spoke in the 1940's, you can't rely on a movie or two made during the day plus a historical novel set back then. Nor can you read a few books written by the English upper class and have any idea how the lower classes would have spoken. The best thing to do is try and find things said by the very type of people you're trying to write about. It's not always easy to find these materials, but if you can, they will help you create more authentic dialog.

Many "historical facts" that have floated around for years are just plain wrong.

Numerous fake history facts have been believed as truth for ages. Many people are doing their best to clear them up, but nonetheless there are many people who believe them. I've even seen a few pop up in historical documentaries.

One fake history fact is that Victorian women used to have their lowest ribs removed so they could have smaller waists. This isn't true at all. The relatively primitive medical knowledge and technology of the day would have made such an operation too dangerous to be considered feasible.

Another one is that the Ring a Ring a Roses nursery rhyme is about the Black Death. In reality, the rhyme comes from the Victorian era - centuries later.

A more recent historical myth is that one that the radio broadcast of War of the Worlds sparked a mass panic. It didn't.

Some things that people believe go back to contemporary propaganda or slander. Marie Antoinette never said "let them eat cake," nor did she say anything remotely similar. French royals of the day were frequently accused of saying things like this.

There are far, far too many misconceptions to list here, but if you want to learn more you might take some time (like an afternoon) to read what comes up if you search for "history myths", "medieval history myths", "ancient history misconceptions", or something more suited to whichever time and place you're interested in. (And do keep in mind that some sites that aim to correct historical myths are themselves wrong. Research is a messy, snarly beast!)

Art and media were not "better" back then.

Every now and then I see comments on old music videos talking about how music was so much better back then, unlike all the garbage that comes out nowadays. Now here's the thing: people have been doing this this on the Internet for decades now. Back in the 90's, you'd find people complaining that 90s music was garbage and declaring that real music was the stuff that came out a few decades ago. In the 2000s, they complained about 2000s music and declared that real music was the stuff from the late 80's or so. In the 2010s, people are complaining about 2010s music and declaring that the 90s and 2000s had real music.

It's not just music that gets this treatment, either. All kinds of art and media do - movies, children's cartoons, books, video games, whatever. You name it, people will insist it used to be better back then.

So what does this mean? Is all art and entertainment just on a downward spiral?

Not at all!

There are four potential factors at work here. One if them is nostalgia. We tend to think that the stuff we liked when we were younger (usually in our childhood and adolescence) was the greatest stuff ever. And there are reasons for this. When we're younger, we're less adept at spotting poor quality. We also tend to forget the flaws that things had. So as we get older, we really believe that these things were the greatest things ever made. Yet if we actually looked back on them, we'd often find that they weren't quite as great as we remembered.

The second is a sort of false nostalgia held by people who were never there to experience the thing when it was new, but buy into the hype that it was the best stuff ever. Since these people are essentially enamored with a romanticized image of the past, we'll call it "romantia." People with romantia tend to look at the present world and see mainly the bad things. Then they read nostalgic accounts of the past or dip into the most popular media from the era and conclude that this was the best time period ever. They fail to realize that the books and movies made in the past don't necessarily reflect reality any more than the books and movies made in our time do. They don't realize that the erstwhile media they're consuming is the cream of the crop and does not represent the average quality of media produced back then. (As Sturgeon's Law declares, "90% of everything is crap.")

The third is our habit of damning new things for no particularly good reason. We declare it stupid and wrong simply because it's different from what we're used to or because it's not tailored toward our own personal tastes. Most people are not very good at distinguishing between what's bad quality and what's simply not to their tastes.

And finally, sometimes we like things because they're different from what we're used to. Maybe we're weary of contemporary styles all the time, and maybe listening to something from the past gives us a refreshing change of pace. But if you went back in time and that was the only thing you ever heard, you'd eventually get weary of that, too. Sometimes we find that a piece of media touches on a theme that's often overlooked or speaks to us in a way that modern media doesn't. And yet if you were to go back in time, you'd find that their media overlooked different things.

Now, there are absolutely short-term dips and rises in terms of media quality, and sometimes certain flaws are more prominent than others. The 2000s attempted to meet growing demand for grit and realism in ways that would often be considered contrived or over the top today. People often found entertainment from the 90s to be too saccharine, too sanitized, and much too ignorant of real social issues.

So no, art and media is not actually getting worse. People just don't understand how the past was, or certain new things just aren't to their tastes.

In summary!

You might also like:

A Few Things Writers Need To Know About The Medieval Period
A Few Things Writers Need To Know About Medieval Feudalism

Points To Remember When Worldbuilding
Advice & Tips On Developing Fictional Timelines & Histories
Tips To Create Richer & More Realistic Fantasy & Science Fiction Cultures & Civilizations

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