Once I have the idea nailed down and working properly, I jump a few steps in the process to get to the background of the characters and the world. It doesn’t work like this for everyone, but I need to know a few details before I get too excited. There’s a great metaphor from – of all things – Armageddon which I like using to illustrate the process of ‘packing the world’. If you remember the scene explaining the mission, where the “fist around a firecracker” line gets trotted out then you have some idea of what I consider to be the way facts are wrapped around the story.
As long as there is something solid enough to grasp on to, then the reader should have less trouble with the big and psychotic swing to darker aspects of the story. A bit of soap opera nestled in the middle of something (horror, SF, thriller) will give verisimilitude, and this is where I normally drop in a few unfamiliar things in the hope they will be picked up on. Quick example: Even if you have no idea who Rudolf Diesel is, dropping him into a WWII story adds a layer of realism for those who do.
September 29, 1913. The Dresden.
Diesel sighed, his hands gripping the rail tightly as he gazed upon the fog-enclouded sea. The knowledge of the Machine heavy in his heart.
The Machine. The dreadful engine of destruction.
Time was running out. Too much was already known, and The Architects were aware of his creation.
Movement at the other end of the vessel caught Diesel’s eye. They had arrived.
This excerpt is, of course, about the mysterious events aboard The Dresden. It doesn’t need to be a famous individual which grounds the story, and references to belief (I’ve used a prayer to St. Caedwalla to covertly show character) or simple shared knowledge are equally as useful. The use of real events, people and locations fall, more or less, into two separate categories which fulfill different roles in the creation of a coherent universe. The first is simple, the second needs a bit of explanation.
The use of any existing nation carries deep history. What happened a thousand years ago may not play directly into anything that exists in the novel, but the combined weight of events throughout the life of a country is present in even the slightest works. A novel about witches set in America carries the imagery of the Salem witch trials, while a similar novel set in the UK would feel the threads of the Witchfinders tangled deep in their fabric. French novels might play on the themes of Revolution whilst exploring the changes in management at a textile company…
It is easy to write a bad story while relying on deep history, and many people have fumbled the subtext while trying to be clever. Intelligence and a proper understanding of where we have come from is one thing, laziness in world-building is a completely different situation. You can only deliver on the promise of an idea if the reader is aware you are playing with the text as a historical analogy. I was going to expend a little space here explaining the reasons Dan Brown failed in this regard, but it would require a couple of thousand words on its’ own.
The first, and only, rule is one of compatibility with accepted history. You can’t up and claim that the planet is a cube unless you have altered everything in the history of the planet to take the change into consideration. Did Columbus still end up circumnavigating the cube? Which way does water go down the plughole? How does the shape of the planet affect the rising and falling of the sun? It is all connected through deep history.
The deep history also has to be able to fit creative history.
Creative history is the shallow end of the story, which doesn’t need expansion unless the story turns into a series of books or is adapted to other media. This is best explained with a bestseller so I have the best chance of getting the idea across clearly. In the Harry Potter books, the Hogwarts school is a character in its’ own right, and thus depends on creative history to be placed in a specific time and location. When I use the phrase ‘creative history’ it is to indicate the hard facts rather than narrative.
In the case of Hogwarts the creative history would include the date on which the commencement of building was started. If you want to go farther with the idea, you might want to consider where the stones were mined from, and how long it took for the building to be completed. This ignores the stories of the people who actually built the school, and the various uses of the complex over the centuries it has stood.
When additions to deep history are integrated into the creative history, it is essential to mix in facts from history. It’s like the firecracker I began this post with: If the fiction is wrapped in reality, then the end result tends to give more bang for your buck. All of which is only really useful if the story is set in the here and now. I’ll get to the finer points of my SF WIP in another post, but it is set out in a similar fashion to present-day stories.
I haven’t touched on the problem of duplication and redundancy in this post yet, so I should highlight the dangers of creating from whole cloth.
If there is an existing organization or location which fits the needs of a fiction, the creation of a fictional counterpart brings up numerous problems. Is the deep history of the existing location affixed to the created location? Is the activities of the real organization attributed to the fictional group, or do they co-exist? I’ve come across this problem a few times, and I find it easier to use what already exists, tweaking the facts to suit my needs.
I always look for gaps and contradictions in history, so that the fictions I integrate can present themselves more easily as acceptable and readable. I’ve got the feeling that none of the questions raised by this post have been made clearly, so I’ll continue this later. In the meantime I’ll think on better ways to show how redundancy of material can needlessly complicate storytelling in unforseen ways.