Making Histories 

Thoughts on Convincing Pasts 

J. S. Burke  

2001, J. S. Burke

Issue #1: 01/01/01

Feature Articles
Making Histories
By J.S. Burke
Women and Childbearing 
in Fantasy

By Bryn Neuenschwander
Matching Your Money to Your World 
By Ron Brown
Capturing Time for the Muse
By Vicki McElfresh
In Praise of Praise:
A Second Look at Critiquing

By Lazette Gifford
Building a Better Beast
By Sarah Jane Elliott
State of the Horror Genre
By Ron Brown
Poetry and Everyday  Life
By Jennifer St. Clair Bush
Your Characters Are 
Not Puppets

By Anne M. Marble
Science Fiction: 
Are We Going Somewhere 

By Bob Billing
Stage & Screen: 
The Promise of Premise
By Robin Catesby
Suspense & Mystery:
The Motives of Villains 
and Heroes in Suspense Fiction
By Shane P. Carr
Young Adult & Children:
The Gulf
By Justin Stanchfield
Young Writer's Scene:
Five Practical Tips for Young Writers
By Beth Adele Long
Book Reviews
Web Site Reviews
How Critique Circles Work
By Jim Mills
Doggerel Contest Winner
News from Forward Motion

Faithfulness to the truth of history involves far more than a research, however patient and scrupulous, into special facts.  Such facts may be detailed with the most minute exactness, and yet the narrative, taken as a whole, may be unmeaning or untrue. The narrator must seek to imbue himself with the life and spirit of the time.  He must study events in their bearings near and remote; in the character, habits, and manners of those who took part in them.  He must himself be, as it were, a sharer or a spectator of the action he describes.

Francis Parkman

Pioneers of France in the New World, 1865

One way to coax the reader into accepting the setting of your story as genuine is to build your world on a convincing history.  In SF, this generally takes the form of a future history--of Earth, other planets, or both.  A big pitfall with inventing a past is that the end result can wind up looking invented, as if you'd marked it all out with a straightedge and compass.  And, if it does, you've lost a huge chunk of your setting's credibility. 

The General Character of History 

Though he's not without his flaws, one of my favorite historians is Arnold Toynbee, author of the ten-volume Study of History, and I'm starting off with one of his major conclusions: that history is accidental and chaotic. This follows from his observation that environment--physical and intellectual--is the key force behind shaping civilizations, as opposed to race or biology.  Biology is a limiting factor on culture--and therefore on civilizations, which are born from cultures--but environment is far more important.  This is easy to see when you consider that human biology has utilized [1] thousands--perhaps tens of thousands--of varying cultures, and from these cultures two dozen or so wildly different civilizations have flourished. 

So, forget the idea of any event being inevitable, and watch out for extrapolating too faithfully from contemporary trends; the future isn't bound to realize our expectations.  Fed up with cyberpunk and want a future where the Net either doesn't exist or plays only a minor role in daily life?  Don't want to deal with quantum technology, which looks to be shaping into the 21st century's atomic physics?  Go for it; as long as you provide good reasons for major departures from expectations, no one can fault you for being unrealistic.  After all, a 1933 Presidential committee appointed to "chart our course" through the early 1950s had zero to say about jet planes, nuclear weapons, antibiotics, DNA, the re-establishment of Israel, the Communist revolution in China or the United Nations. 

Approaches to Inventing History 

There are roughly two ways of approaching the construction of a history: (1) Begin with a "present day" setting and work backwards to the events that caused the setting; or (2) Build a history first, then allow it to lead causally to a "present day" setting.  Both are equally useful, and they're not mutually exclusive.  E.g., you can start with a setting, then work back to establish its causal events; then throw in a few random happenings, follow where they lead, then adjust your initial setting to suit.  I've used this technique myself, and it can create very textured and complex histories if you're willing.


How far back do you intend your past to reach?  Twenty years?  10,000?  The answer to this question depends largely on the needs of your story.  If the past plays only a minor role overall, go short: maybe a decade or two, while fleshing out only key events; it doesn't matter if the story is set in AD 2030 or 10,191.  If the past is more important--to the plot, your characters, your themes--then it's critical to push further back and also know the events in greater detail.  However, once you choose an approximate timescale--three decades, three thousand years--always keep it in mind as you write; I've found that when I do this, I'm able to subtly suggest the temporal depth of my history without resorting to "And this mess all started 150 years ago when . . . ." 

Breadth and Scope 

The companion coordinate to time is space: where your history is concerned, this is breadth and scope.  Events extend not just over a number of years but over a given area--on Earth, or in the universe as a whole.  Think of the breadth and scope of your history as the size of the history's stage, similar to the dramatic stage on which the story itself unfolds.  But be careful not to confuse the two: a story with a limited dramatic stage can include a huge, sweeping past, as evidenced by Raphael Carter's The Fortunate Fall.  The geographical area you cover with your history depends, again, on the needs of your story.  For stories where the history isn't important, you can get away with detailing local events and merely sketching a few of the global or universal ones that have had the most significant impact at the local level.  For future historicals, however, this won't suffice: only knowing about your homeland--the United States, say--and ignoring Africa, Europe, Asia and the Pacific will make your history seem unduly restricted and self-centered.  As I'll discuss later, events don't happen in isolation, and an assassination or scientific development 3000 miles away can have major repercussions on the very street where your characters live. 

Real Templates 

Down through the ages, certain chains of events have occurred like clockwork, though the exact character of the events varies with the period.  It's good to keep in mind an old maxim here: history repeats itself.  No matter how far-future or technologically strange your story, your humans are likely to be just as human as ever--which means they'll act and react to produce events that bear an uncanny likeness to those that have already gone on, once the events are scrutinized and placed in the larger scheme.  Working from an authentic historical template can add a feel of realism, along with the potentially haunting realization (in the characters, the reader or both) that "we've been here before."  Some good dramatic templates include: 

(1) A technologically weaker culture is opened to the influence of a stronger one, and the weaker is transformed or wrecked via the influence.  If transformed, the weaker culture may become a future enemy of the stronger and lust after the stronger's possessions or status.  Examples: The American Indians and the Spanish Conquistadors; Perry opening Japan to the West and Japan's subsequent industrialization, militarism and imperialism; the Germanic tribes and the Roman Empire. 

(2) A conqueror wages war on his neighbors and/or perpetrates genocide, is eventually defeated or dies after copious bloodshed, and the consciences of generations are haunted by his legacy.  Examples: Napoleon and Imperial France; Stalin and the Ukraine Terror-Famine; Hitler, World War II and the Holocaust. 

(3) A plague, natural disaster, irrational fear or widespread social disillusionment gives rise to a wave of religious hysteria that may bring tragic consequences.  Examples: the Renaissance and Salem witch hunts; the Great Awakening in colonial America; the Ayatollah Khomeini's theocracy in Iran; 20th century Christian fundamentalism and televangelism. 

(4) A conqueror consolidates a huge empire that is held together either by his personal charisma or ability to induce terror, but because he fails to establish lasting institutions, the empire crumbles soon after his death.  Examples: Ghengis Khan and the Mongols; Alexander the Great; Charlemagne. 

(5) The decline of a traditional social philosophy or religion (among the power-holders or the people) and the rise of a very different one leads to political coup or even widespread revolution.  Examples: the Roman Republic's transformation into the Roman Empire; the revolt of the American colonies on the principle of liberty; the French Revolution against monarchy on the principle of equality; Nazi Germany's rise on the principle of racial nationalism.  An interesting variant of this: a believer in the old displaced philosophy uses elements of the new one to help preserve the past.  Examples: Bismarck's use of European nationalism to build a greater Prussia in the guise of the German Empire; Alexander Hamilton's aristocratic leanings justified by representative (as opposed to direct) democracy; Christian fundamentalists' (ab)use of science in attempting to prove a six-day creation. 

(6) A new culture rises from the ruins of a collapsed or severely weakened civilization, then develops into a civilization in its own right.  This is a very common phenomenon.  A culture will tend to grow into a civilization if the environment is challenging enough to evoke a response from the people but not so harsh that it defeats all responses.  Examples: Syriac civilization growing from ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia; the emergence of Hindu civilization from the Indus Valley people and the Aryan invaders; the birth of the West from the Roman Empire and the Germanic tribes; the rise of the United States and the Soviet Union as superpowers from the post-World-War-II West (Europe). 

You get the idea.  The technology, specific circumstances and names of people may change, but scenarios such as these are likely to unfold just about anywhere and anywhen humans live.  Above all, strive for a dramatic template; a history that reads like the diary of a grindingly-bored goat-herder on the plains of Mongolia won't exactly evoke a sense of wonder.  For long or especially complex histories, you can work with two or more concurrent templates and have them intersect to synthesize an outcome event or even the starting event of a new template.  Or you can build with several sequential templates and establish cause-effect relationships to bridge them.  Which leads right into the next topic . . . 

Cause and Effect 

No observable macroscopic event occurs without a cause, nor lacks an effect, and your history can't be merely a collection of unconnected happenings.  If a mad Pope sets out to conquer the planet, there better be a damned good reason . . . and a reason for that reason, and so on.  Likewise, if your characters zoom around in hover-cars, you'll have to figure out who developed antigravity technology, and why.  Events are unified by cause and effect, a principle that's suggested in the above scenarios.   

A related but slightly more artistic concern here: the most memorable and engaging histories are those whose events form not only a clear cause-effect chain but are also unified thematically.  They make a specific point in a specific way.  Probably the greatest example isn't found in SF, but in fantasy: Tolkien's Middle-Earth.  The whole history of that world is built around the themes of cultural decline and the waning of the supernatural as time proceeds forward from the Creation: in the First Age, the god-like Valar walk the world and make war on Morgoth-- but, by the Fourth, even most of the elves have vanished and the (decidedly less-cultured) humans are in ascendancy.  But just as Beleriand could never quite match the elven home on Valinor or Rivendell compete with lost Beleriand, the restored kingdom of Gondor can't live up to the sea-lords of Numenor.  And, eventually, mundane humans alone will inhabit the Earth and magic will be gone forever.  Tolkien shows us something with his history; his collection of events points to something larger than itself.  

Weird Things 

It's possible to take the cause-effect principle too far.  I always like to throw in a few minor but unexplained elements--e.g., an interesting event of secondary importance that isn't part of the main historical chain and whose causal antecedents aren't given.  Since you won't be  constructing an entire past day-to-day, this can have the effect of making your history seem more complex than it really is.  Furthermore, it can draw a perceptive reader deeper into your setting by tempting him to guess just how a loose end might fit into the scheme, the way I used to wonder why the pink triangle is a gay-pride symbol before I studied the Holocaust.  Or why some people had gory pictures of a man nailed to a cross hanging on their dining-room walls before I'd ever heard the word "Christian."  And if you can make the reader wonder that way, you've seduced him into accepting your history as real.  

Unity of Past and Present 

Just as your past can't be a collage of unconnected events, neither can it just sit there on the page with no relevance to the story.  Forge as many connections as possible between your history and your story's plot and characters; at best, make your story represent the final resolution of an entire event-chain or chains in your history.  This way, you can achieve a unity of past and present that binds the story elements tighter and also helps justify the necessary exposition of your history.  I've just finished Holly's Vengeance of Dragons, so I'll use her as an example: a few twists and turns aside, the overall plot of The Secret Texts shows the culmination and resolution of a thousand years on Matrin.  The Mirror of Souls and all the references to the Wizards' War aren't just there for verisimilitude; an age ago, the cruel sorcerers called the Dragons were trapped in the Mirror--and, in the second book, they finally get a chance at revenge.  No doubt they'll eventually be defeated--and, when they are, an entire chain of Matrin's history will have been resolved in the context of the story.  In a broad sense, the stories of the characters and the story of Matrin become one and the same. 

My favorite effect of building this unity is that the history often takes on psychological weight in the process.  When we, in our world, hear "Vietnam" or "Pearl Harbor," the words stir emotions via their historical associations--those things have presence and gravity for us.  This is a hard effect to duplicate when you're working with invented history, and I'm not sure how to consistently bring it about.  But one route is to make the story of the world and the stories of the characters either the same or intimately related; make the people and their ancestors as inseparable as possible.  When you do this, and your characters engage the reader, the reader may acquire the heaviness through the characters--as they tremble or become irate over the L.A. Holocaust of 2049, they may prod the reader to link those feelings with the event in his own mind, thereby achieving an approximation of the psychological weight we feel about our own past.  The trick is not to convince the reader that a character is frightened or angry over an episode of genocide; rather, it's to make the reader himself (however mildly) frightened or angry over the genocide. 

Perceptions of History

Don't make the mistake of allowing every society the world over (or universe over) to view a sequence of events or person from your history with the same eyes.  This is akin to inventing the alien planet whose inhabitants don’t exhibit any racial, cultural or linguistic variation whatsoever.  The United States viewed the decline and fall of the Soviet Union with feelings of triumph or happiness; meanwhile, Castro was panicking and the Russian people themselves stared down an uncertain road.   

A related but more subtle issue is the perception of history or people over time within a single society or culture.  Perceptions of the past change as political leaders, social conditions and popular ideologies do.  A great case-study  is Sarajevo and that city's decidedly unstable opinion of Gavrilo Princip, the teenager who assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914 and sparked World War I.  Princip was a Bosnian Serb and member of the Black Hand, a terrorist group devoted to uniting all Serbs under one state at the expense of Austria-Hungary.  His killing of the Austro-Hungarian heir made him an instant hero in Sarajevo, whose people longed to throw off the rule of Vienna and the Habsburgs.  After the war, when the city became incorporated into Yugoslavia, Princip's name dropped from immediate awareness onto the list of Serbian nationalist martyrs--still held in high esteem, but not celebrated in the streets.  Then, during World War II, he was nearly forgotten and seemed destined for obscurity.  Under the communist leader Josip Broz Tito, however, Princip swelled into a national icon; in 1953, Sarajevo even opened a museum dedicated to him.  At the time, he'd never been more popular. 

But the deification wasn't to last.  When all hell broke loose in the Balkans and the Serbian Army starting shelling Sarajevo in 1992, the irate Bosnian Muslims of the city declared their own war on symbols of the disintegrated Yugoslavia.  The Princip museum was ransacked and a number of artifacts destroyed.  Its curator, Bajro Gec, may have managed to save the bulk of the collection, but Princip's popularity collapsed with Yugoslavia: today, because of his Serbian background, he's political dynamite, and few people will talk openly about him.  Eighty-six years have slung him through the incarnations of hero, martyr, "Huh?" figure, national god, and, finally, pariah.  We never stop making up our minds about history; patriot today, traitor ten generations from now.  

A Final Word 

If you think of your history as a collection of dry facts or a mere timeline that mechanically lurches to your "present day" setting, it's going to come off that way to the reader.  You'll bore him as surely as a high school history text would.  Instead, treat past people and events as no less real than your viewpoint characters and the world they live in; you may not present all the past details directly, but they'll be there as hints and shadows when you need them.  That guy who shot Lincoln had a name, a face, a job and his own passions that drove him to assassinate the President.  Cicero felt rage, fear and love; he wasn't a stone bust frozen in time.  The Battle of Wake Island wasn't fought by casualty statistics; the U.S. Marines there were shredded and blown apart by the Japanese, and they made the seawater red.  When you think about your fictional past, remember all that. 

[1] Utilized may seem an odd word when speaking of cultures; nevertheless, it's appropriate here.  It comes from the so-called "software theory" of culture: as the analogy goes, culture is to biology what software is to hardware.  A culture is a set of strategies and methods that people use to solve problems; and, just as your desktop computer can operate on Windows 98, Windows NT, Linux, Unix, etc., so, too, can human biology (i.e., brains) operate on different cultures.  The point is that culture is a thing that's used or utilized to achieve practical ends. (Back)

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