One thing that really brings a story to life are the details. These can be pub songs, pipe smoking habits, religious factions, and other small tidbits that aren’t required, are certainly not center stage, but most certainly allow readers to live in the world. It is that touch you put on something where you wrote more than required, show less than you created, but the reader respects that, whether or not they realize it. Why do you want details? Because otherwise everything is a two dimensional way to display ideas, instead of an immersive portrayal of a world in your head.
Before we delve into this, however, a reminder. Despite the fact you’re creating all these neat details, info dumps are evil. Seriously. If there is a villain in your story, it’s three pages of detail delivered with all the grace of a two by four upside the head. Have characters notice little things, or simply state there was a statue for some guy who did something long ago. You don’t need to tell us more, as your characters would find it natural. Now on with the show.
For any world building, history is the foundation of all that is and was. It’s why an empire was created, why ruins exist, why a planet is now an asteroid field, and so on. It’s really easy to start at the point in history where your story begins, and leave everything else out. Your readers won’t even notice. They will notice, however, if you include history.
When I create history, I have a story concept. I let it ferment in my head for months to years. There is daydreaming, I may write a scene or character sketch here or there, but most of this will end up in the garbage. Orson Scott Card backs up the idea that any good idea should be allowed to sit in your head, with a few physical manifestations, for six months or more. It allows the ideas to form more fully, and you can ensure a higher chance you even have a story to write.
So the brew of imagination is ready to boil over and you need to sample the goods. Sometimes I will jot down random ideas, but it all eventually comes around to the history. I sit down for an hour or two in order to complete the task. Any more time than that and I’m wasting time.
I come up with dates and why the calendar system exists. Why is this important? There are countless calendars in our world, and each one is based on major events, the edicts of emperors and kings, or other reasons. The reason for how your people tell time is very showing of who they are. I’ve never created full week calendars, only seasons or years. From there I start to insert major events.
In the past six months, I’ve already figured out most of the events even if I haven’t assigned them years. Now and then I’ll throw in something random, especially if I go a thousand years without something note worthy. Most are blanket and very general, but give enough information it makes sense and creates a sense of setting.
Viola, you have a brief history. It can lead to short stories when you want to pop out something quick as a distraction. It’s also great for hooks. It can create festivals when you need a celebration. Perhaps a fallen tower destroyed a century ago becomes the perfect place for your MacGuffin plot line where the protagonist needs to find an ancient spell or artifact.
Before you get too carried away, there are three major points to keep in mind when creating history. First, your original vision of the culture for your story needs to be malleable. Creating the history may enrich what you already created, and don’t fear that.
Next, your history is malleable. If you find you need to revise it for the plot to function, whether adding or removing, do it. Your timeline is in the background and no one actually knows how it flows.
Finally, do not over share your history. It took you an hour or two. Use one or two tidbits and it’s time well spent. Do not, for all that is benevolent, share your entire history. The only exception is if your history is of the utmost importance, you become ridiculously famous, or you share your short stories about those moments on your blog for publicity. Otherwise, in the novel, do not share.
With that, go forth and make history.
There are several more of these detail oriented posts to come! Do you make histories? If so how do you incorporate them? If you write science fiction, do you make them for each planet? That would be maddening, but aren’t we all a little mad? Have a fantastic holiday season!