World-building a Historical Fantasy Part 1

Map backgroundI envy fantasy writers because they get to make everything up. But what a lot of work that must be! On the other hand, writing a historical novel involves a lot of research. I, however, have the best of both worlds. I set my novel in a poorly documented historical past (Dark-age Scotland) so there’s not that much research I could do. And because so little is known, I get to make lots of stuff up.

Where to start

The first thing I knew I had to get right was the cultures of my novel. But why start with the cultures? Why not start with the history? Because culture underpins history. It gives characters motivation, attitude, world-views. It can set them up to succeed or fail. Cultural differences are often at the heart of a novel, and the clash of cultures can be a potent theme. In Bernard Cornwell’s The Last Kingdom series of books, the protagonist, Uhtred, is torn between the Saxon culture of his birth and the Danish culture of his upbringing. The overall theme of a series of invasions and assimilations of different peoples mirrors his personal struggle to reconcile the two.

In the Trystan Trilogy, I based a lot of the action on conflict between different groups of peoples. In addition, my main character, Corwynal, like Uhtred, comes from two opposing societies which he struggles to reconcile, especially since he suffers from prejudice from both cultures and feels as if he belongs nowhere.

When thinking about the different cultures in my novels, I’m really asking myself what makes people tick and why. My story isn’t about history. It’s about people creating and experiencing history. So I need to know what they believe in, what they’re afraid of and what’s important to them. And I need to know how this differs in a rival culture and therefore how those differences might affect the plot.

Actual historical cultures in The Trystan Trilogy

I was fortunate (or unfortunate) in that I had four different cultures in the period and location I chose. But that makes it complicated. Two would have been easier. However, I couldn’t ignore big historical facts such as the existence of those other peoples. So, who were they? (Warning – you’ll have to concentrate for the next bit.).

  • The Britons occupied lowland ‘Scotland’. They were a Celtic people who spoke a language known as Brythonic, which ultimately developed into Welsh. Some of them had probably been allies of the Romans and the Roman culture would have influenced that of the Britons.
  • The Picts occupied the ‘Highlands’ and were probably distantly related to the Britons and probably spoke a Brythonic language too. (Note probably. Not much is known about the Picts.)
  • The Scots, originally from Ireland, occupied the coast and islands of the southwestern seaboard of ‘Scotland’ and are also a Celtic people but spoke a Goidelic language that ultimately gave rise to Irish and Scottish Gaelic. They eventually spread over much of Scotland, which is why it’s called Scotland.
  • The Angles, a Germanic people from northern Europe, had begun to move into south-eastern ‘Scotland’. They spoke Anglo-Saxon and would ultimately occupy the whole of ‘England’ which is why it’s called England.

So, we have Britons who’re Welsh with a dash of Italian, Scots who’re Irish, Angles who’re German, and Picts who’re a mystery. It’s quite complicated!

The Britons, Picts and Scots, being Celtic peoples, probably had very similar cultures. They probably (I realise I’ve been using that word a lot, but it’s the Dark Ages) worshipped similar gods in similar ways, had a similar type of cattle-based barter economy where raiding was frequent but battles rare. These similarities were useful to me as a writer in some ways. For example, I wanted to know how ‘crimes’ were dealt with in one of my cultures. There is virtually nothing known about this aspect of society in this period in Scotland. But there are fragmentary Welsh texts about a system of laws. So I assumed the various cultures in my books would have similar laws. This saved me from having to make up my own law system, which sounded like a lot of work.

But similarities were unhelpful in other ways. I wanted to distinguish between the different cultures since I wanted my characters to have feelings and opinions which varied according to where they came from. There is some historical evidence for differences, but I still had a lot to make up. This was my chance to use my imagination and here I turned to other cultures for inspiration and to give a flavour of these differences. So, once I’d mixed fact, probabilities, possibilities and imagination, this is what I came up with:

Imagined cultures in The Trystan Trilogy

  • Britons – a horse-riding people (fact), where some earlier contact with the Romans (fact) had led to a more organised martial culture (maybe). More disciplined than their neighbours (debatable), and, with some left-over Roman technology (maybe), more advanced. In terms of religion, a mix of older Celtic beliefs and the growing influence of Christian priests (probable). The Scots were religiously similar (see below) and so although the Britons and Scots were enemies, the possibilities for friendship existed (possible). They’re afraid of the Picts whom they regard as savages (possible). I thought of them as ex-roman soldiers who’d gone native (a bit of a stretch.)
  • Picts – much more primitive (in some ways). But, like the Britons, a horse-riding culture (fact). Historically, Pictish fleets are mentioned (fact), so I gave them a sea-faring culture as well and decided their ships had black sails (made-up). There’s some evidence that kingship passed down the female line (open to interpretation). I kept this but didn’t go as far as some authors and make the culture matriarchical (no evidence). Their religion is polytheistic with animal totems (probable). Druids would have been influential (probably not). And, of course, there were the famous tattoos (debatable) which I couldn’t resist. They despise the Britons for allying themselves with the Romans (not known). A different culture which inspired me when thinking about the Picts was that of the native American Indians, so I saw them as dressing flamboyantly with lots of feathers and paint and weird hair-dos (no evidence)
  • Scots – a sea-faring nation, occupying the sea-lochs and islands where travel was only practicable by sea (fact). So infantry, rather than cavalry (not known). More Christianised than the Britons (probable) but there are still pockets of older belief, and possibly some aboriginal pre-Celtic tribes in the lands they occupied (no evidence). Sea-links to more southerly Christian lands would have meant the transmission of knowledge (likely) so I gave them a well-educated priest class (possible). They feel sorry for the Britons whom they regard as badly educated (who knows?). Again, looking for something to distinguish them, I thought of the Italian mafia clans where family was all important. So Feargus, King of Dalriada, one of the Scots Kingdoms, is motivated by the desire to increase the wealth and security of his extended family, much like a Mafia Don.
  • Angles – another sea-faring nation. They rode horses too (possible) but the one Angle warrior in my books hates horses. He’s skilled with any sort of boat, however (probable). The Angles had a martial culture (fact), but were also farmers (fact). Their Gods were akin to those of the later Vikings (sort of fact), to whom they’re distantly related (I believe), so when I was thinking of details for the Angles, I thought of hammers and axes. They despise the Britons whom they regard as weaklings and dreamers (made up) but admire the Picts for their war-like character (made-up).

Top tips for creating believable cultures in historical fiction

  • Look for general similarities, but emphasise differences in detail.
  • For detail, think about parallels find inspiration in unrelated cultures, both geographically and in different time periods.
  • Think of your cultures as characters, with flaws and redeeming features.
  • Whatever period you’re working with, research until you get a feel for what it must have been like to be part of that culture.
  • Don’t give into the temptation to project modern attitudes on historical cultures.

Attitudes in the past

Picking up on that last point, I think this is so important when writing historical-based fiction. I recently read a book set in the early 20th century where the importance of self-care was mentioned by one character. Yes, it’s important, but did people one hundred years ago think so? Would that concept, no matter what it might have been called, be at the forefront of anyone’s mind? I’m not sure I’d heard of it even ten years ago. Our own 21st century attitudes are shaped by our education and experience, both of which would have been very different in the past, particularly for the ‘man in the street’ for whom leisure was non-existent and survival was paramount. I think the hardest part about writing historical fiction is getting inside the heads of characters whose life experiences are so very different from your own. But it has to be done. So here are just a few questions you might ask yourself about the cultural attitudes in your novel’s world:

  • How did the people of those times regard women, slaves and animals?
  • How did women and slaves see themselves?
  • What did they think the Gods were?
  • How did they communicate with their Gods?
  • How did they explain rainbows or eclipses?
  • What did they think sickness was caused by?
  • What would they die for?
  • What did they think happened after death?

Reading a book of historical fiction is the second next best thing to experiencing what it was like to live in the past. The first best thing, of course, is writing it.

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