If you read my last post you’ll know that I’m on a quest to move away from the books that I’m familiar with and branch out to other writers, to see if it has a positive effect on my own writing.
So far, I’m sort of cheating. The first book that I’ve delved into since Tuesday isn’t actually another fantasy novel. I want to write fantasy but for whatever reason I’m bad at actually getting myself to read fantasy novels by other authors, and so I have a wide variety of award-winning fantasy books lying around my bedroom in unread heaps. It would have been easy to pick up one of these and get stuck into it, allowing the author to transport me into the world that they’d created. But instead, I prized open the covers of a book so heavy that it could be used for construction purposes.
The Honourable Company is a 475-page narrative history of the East India Company, written by the journalist and historian John Keay. It’s a comprehensive, entertaining history of the early expeditions that led to the establishment of the trading company which eventually bought control over most of India and Southeast Asia.
I’m ‘cheating’ by reading it because I’ve already read the first few chapters, and because I love reading books like this. I studied history at the University of Manchester, and when I was in a productive frame of mind – rather than procrastinating or panicking under the weight of imminent deadlines – there was nothing I loved more than selecting a weighty academic tome off my course reading list, checking it out of the library, and plunging head-first into history. (I enjoy learning new things, but only when I’m not expected to write an essay on the subject.) There’s something wonderful about reading the culmination of somebody else’s painstaking research, knowing how much effort they put into scouring through history and recording it, with the honest intentions of simply producing a book that would improve other people’s understanding of the past. I also find history very entertaining. Perhaps this makes me a huge dork, but history isn’t necessarily dry and boring, particularly when it’s written by an author who has a sense for the ridiculous, which John Keay certainly does.
I’m of the opinion that everyone ought to read as many history books as they can. Defeating your own ignorance about the complex history of the human race is always a good thing, and studying the efforts of the generations that came before ours can lead to a renewed appreciation of the world we live in. History also has a habit of repeating itself, and forewarned is forearmed. But history is especially valuable to aspiring authors, no matter what genre you’re writing in.
Firstly, history provides us with exquisite morsels which can be shamelessly plundered and inserted directly into books. John Keay’s book has provided me with several of these which I’m almost reluctant to share with you, lest you steal them. For example, in the early days of the East India Company, when poorly-coordinated expeditions often led to ships sinking, sailing to the wrong parts of the world, losing most of their crew to scurvy, or bringing back merchandise which had gone down in price on the London markets, the company decided to improve their internal communications by leaving a single man on an island off the coast of South Africa, for several years, with only penguins for company.
Keay writes that ‘Whenever a ship anchored in the Bay he quickly donned jacket and hose and pushed past the penguins with whatever messages had been left in his care’ by ships passing in either direction. If you’re in the business of writing humorous fantasy novels, or historical fiction, or even contemporary fiction – perhaps you want a quirky back-story for one of your character’s ancestors – you could have a character marooned for years on an island full of penguins. Or if you’re writing grimmer, more hard-hitting stories, you could create an impactful story about the loneliness or depression of someone struggling to stay alive in a similar situation. And that’s just one story from one history book.
Isolated incidents aren’t the only realm from which we can draw historical inspiration, however. If you’re struggling to add a sense of background realism to your fantasy, you can go and read up on real-world history and see if you find anything that fits your setting. Towns and settlements often spring up for odd reasons. The first British trading post in India was built in a harbour exposed to typhoons and blocked by a huge sandbar, which made it a terrible location for trade ships to land. It was built there because the leader of that particular expedition had managed to acquire a mistress in a nearby Dutch settlement, and he wanted to make his visits easier. Despite it’s poor qualifications for a trading port, this little settlement eventually grew to become the city of Madras, now known as Chennai, with a population of 6,000,000. Perhaps a city in your world could have similarly unlikely origins. Or if you want a story that’s slightly less absurd, history books are filled with geopolitical intrigues and details of the birth of nations, many of which might fit the story that you’re trying to write.
Finally, I also find history to be a source of insights into the kind of complex characters who I want to create in my fiction. Studying the history of real nations, real organisations or sub-cultures, is a good way of ensuring that we don’t fall foul to the crimes of stereotyping or creating unrealistic, monolithic portrayals of large groups of people. Even in a group of people like the merchants who worked for the East India Company – men who wanted to make money at other people’s expense and weren’t afraid to sail halfway around the world to do so – there is a surprising range of motivations and a surprising amount of moral integrity. It might be tempting to paint all historical figures with the same brush, and assume that even the most highly-celebrated figures from history held ideas that we would deem to be morally reprehensible in the modern age. This is the kind of assumption that fuels the current trend of ‘grimdark’ fantasy, where fantasy worlds are depicted as brutally indifferent to the fate of their protagonists, and most characters encountered by the protagonist are shown to be intolerant and unprincipled. Grimdark is, of course, a backlash against earlier tropes in fantasy, where fantasy authors brushed over historically-accurate unpleasantness such as plague, slavery, skin tumours, and open sewers. But it’s equally disingenuous to present history – or fantasy worlds based on real-world history – as wholly dark and unpleasant. Reading history shows us that even insides the most insidious organisations and maritime empires in history, most people were complex characters, and there were still isolated individuals who were acting commendably by our own moral standards as well as their own.
I’m not an apologist for the misdeeds of colonial empires, and it’s important to record the dark side of history – but it’s also important to make sure that we don’t make our fantasy settings into wholly bleak worlds, bereft of the kind of characters who act with good intentions. By reading history, we can learn about how real people acted in difficult situations, and we can use their struggles to enrich our own stories.