A few weeks ago, I talked about how I develop setting by drawing upon familiar places in order to give a touch of the familiar to fantasy settings. At the end of that post, I mentioned that I also draw a lot of my settings from history, but didn’t go into it since the post was already long enough as it was. So, today I’m going to revisit setting and talk about how I use time to develop setting. (Just as a side note, I’m talking in terms of fantasy here, since this is what I have experience with. I’ll leave historical fiction up to the historical fiction writers – mad respect for all of you!)
I start by having a time period in mind that I’m interested in. For SHARDS OF MEMORY, I started off in the Middle Ages with the Wars of the Roses in mind. But…then it sort of morphed, because when I started writing, I quickly discovered that Calanthe’s world actually had a much more Victorian flavor. (And don’t even get me started on dragging the Renaissance into all of this, too. The Malleas and Orions are powerful merchant families. This was inspired by my favorite historical family, the Medici.)
Anyway. I use my time period as a starting point in my world building – it’s something I have so I can start to visualize what sort of world my characters might inhabit, and then I start to build around it, picking and choosing which details I might want to use – for example, clothing, architecture, social structure, etc. It’s really, really hard to just make everything up as you go along, which is what I tried to do back in middle school when I first started writing. It’s just way easier to have that blueprint.
I also do a lot of blending with historical periods – none of the fantasy stories I write is purely Victorian or purely medieval or whatever. There are just too many good ones to stick with just one, you know? The way I see it, history is a giant buffet, and I just pick and choose what I like from each one when I’m trying to craft my setting.
Some ideas for things you could draw from history if you’re not sure where to begin:
I could probably keep this list going for days. But the point is, if you’re stuck on developing a realistic setting in your fantasy story, you might not even have to look further than our own world’s history.