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Writing Excuses Season Three Episode One: World Building History

Writing Excuses Season Three Episode One: World Building History


Key points: You don't have to write a history book, you need to create the illusion that the history exists. You need to know which parts of the history are important to your story. Small details can give historical rounding and fullness. You can't spell history without spelling story, too. People like to believe that there are causes in history, but beware monocausationalism -- everything has multiple causes. Pay attention to the reason you are worldbuilding history -- and if it isn't adding to the story, stop. Write your story -- then look for points of conflict and worldbuild there, or as you stumble across important parts, worldbuild those. It's always okay to go back and fix it.

[Brandon] World building history. This is not history of world building, this is how to world build history.
[Dan] How to create a history for your world.
[Brandon] We're not going to talk about historical accuracy, that's a completely different podcast. We're going to talk about what you do -- what we do to get a feeling for the reader when they are reading our works that the characters have a history and that the world has a history, that things have happened in the past.
[Howard] That's really... the distinction that you drew there is that you do not have to write an entire history book before you can sit down and write a novel. Anyone who has been to college can compare the thickness of history books with the thickness of novels and determine where more writing would be involved. You need to create the illusion that that history exists.
[Dan] It's the smoke and mirrors.
[Brandon] It is the smoke and mirrors. Depending on what you're writing and what your goals are, there can be a lot more there. We talk about the iceberg. People like to talk about the iceberg a lot in writing, that you need this big weight underwater to support the peak. That's true, with a caveat. Sometimes, you don't want to put all that weight under there, you just want to make the reader feel that you do. In other places you are going to need to. The distinction is what are you going to use later on, how big of a work are you working on, how important is the history to the setting, all of these things.

[Brandon] Let's dig into it. Dan, first question. How can someone avoid world builder's disease when they are world building history? Because I personally feel that this is the place where people get into world builder's disease the most. If someone is going to stop their writing with something, a long digression or infodump, it's going to be because the characters are walking along and one of them says, "Well, the history of this place is..." or you start your book with "the history of this little town was..." How do we avoid that?
[Dan] The first thing is to know which parts of the history are going to be important to the story. If your characters in a fantasy book need to go and retrieve the lost sword of whatever whatever, in most cases it is not going to be direly important that we know exactly who built this and why and where they came from and where it is and how about ancient temple has fallen into five different hands...
[Howard] We may need to know that. But we probably don't need to know the history of the empire that the sword was first used against.
[Brandon] We might...
[Howard] Or we might.
[Dan] That's why I prefaced this with know what's important and what's not. Because maybe your story does require all that information.

[Howard] Brandon, when you talked about the tip of the iceberg, if the part above water is your story, everything that is white and above water represents text that you have to have written. The shape of the iceberg under the water, just the outline and a formula for the volume of that iceberg and maybe an indication of the glacial striations through that are all you need to do. You don't need to write a word for that entire volume.
[Brandon] That's where people are going to disagree with you. A lot of people [garbled]
[Howard] You're saying that I need 90% as much just for world building?
[Brandon] That's what some authors say. For every word written, there are 10 words written that don't appear in the book. That's the metaphor that people are using. Some people do this. Tolkien did this. For every chapter you get, there was an equal amount of material -- tenfold -- that never ended up in the book. This is why fantasy has this issue, is that people look at Tolkien and say, "Well, he did it. He spent 20 years doing it and then produced his books." You read the Tolkien books and you feel a weight of history because it was all written ahead of time. How do we manage this? Do we do that or do we do what Howard said?
[Howard] I do not want to be the guy who writes three -- four -- maybe five books that everybody has heard of. I want to be the guy who's written two dozen books and who continues to write books and tell stories. I don't have time to write history books.

[Dan] One thing that we have talked about before is the unimportant details. Something very important that you don't tell anyone and something unimportant that you do tell everyone. If you have things like that in your book, your world will feel rounder, it will feel fuller than it really is. Because I as a reader reading it will go, "Oh, if there is an actual history behind this food that they're eating, this special dish, then I'm going to assume that you know everything else." That is going to give enough historical weight to the book that you don't actually have to write all the rest, you just have to make us think you do.

[Brandon] One piece of advice I would give to readers is to decide what you are trying to do. There is a continuum here. There are people that work like Tolkien did. Connie Willis doesn't write a book every year. In fact, she has a book come out every three or four years or maybe every four or five years. She spent a lot of time researching them and a lot of time working on them and then finally releases the book to much critical acclaim. That's one end.
[Howard] That's like epic literary fantasy or something?
[Brandon] Her's are more science fiction-y, but yeah. That's one end of the spectrum. The other end of the spectrum are the people who will remain nameless that are writing a book every two or three months. Obviously, if you are going to write a book every two or three months, you can't do any of that. I like to fall somewhere in between. I like to have a lot of weight of world building and planning, but I do want to be able to write a book every year. Because I want to be able to release a book every year, and I want to make a living at it yearly. If you're writing one every five years, that book's got to earn five times as much as the one I'm writing every year. I try for balance. I use smoke and mirrors in some places and I simply do the work in other places...
[Howard] I don't think you can ever get out of doing the work. If world building is at all important to your book, then you have to do some of that work. It's like Dan said, the history of the food or the important snippets of history for the magic sword -- some of that has to be written down in detail so that you get all of those details right. But as long as you can touch on a few of those places, you get the sense that the rest of that body of the iceberg exists.
[Brandon] For me, what I'm doing is... I will world build that sword. I will know the history of the empire, I will know the history of the sword, I will know the people who have held it. What I won't know are the histories of the other swords that don't appear in the book that I can mention. Since I've done all of the work on this one, you will assume smoke and mirrors that they all have that history too. That's what I'm doing, if that makes any sense whatsoever. But we need to break for a commercial. Howard, how did you get your forehead so shiny?

[Commercial for Bringing Things To You From Writing Excuses!]
[Howard] This episode of Writing Excuses is brought to you by bringing things to you from Writing Excuses. It's true. You too can advertise here at Just follow that link over there in the...uh... left-hand? Right-hand sidebar? Right-hand sidebar. Left-hand sidebar. Follow that link on the sidebar...
[Dan] One of those sidebars has a link.
[Brandon] Somewhere.
[Howard] One of those sidebars has a link and you can sponsor Writing Excuses. And we will do a much better job of reading your ad than we did reading this one.

[Howard] So anyway, this kind of shine does not come cheap.
[Brandon] Let's focus in on the topic a little more. We've talked conceptually about world building. I want to talk about history. How do you do history right? How do you make history specifically feel good? What do you do?
[Howard] You can't spell the word history without spelling the word story. I like to tell stories with my little historical snippets. Any time I'm throwing a footnote in, it's usually because I want to tell a joke and often the joke is about a historical funny. I want to tell a story there. Going back to the magic sword analogy... example, it's not an analogy. You've got the magic sword was used against some particular empire. Knowing that that happened, there's a story in it. Sit down and write that story. You don't need to write the dialogue necessarily, but you need the names, the places, who lived and died. Write a little paragraph about what happened as if you were writing a Wikipedia entry. That's fun.

[Brandon] Dan?
[Dan] My books, since they are just set in Earth, don't have a lot of world built history to them, but the characters do. One of the things specifically I wanted to point out was the main character John -- his dad left. That's a big deal over the course of the three books. I sat down and I figured out all the circumstances under which the father left. But I never explain what happened and what it was like to live with him, because...
[Brandon] And John doesn't know a lot of that.
[Dan] Yeah, he doesn't. You can get a sense... as you read it, you go, "Oh, this seems like it was a pretty bad relationship." You don't know what the father did to cause a divorce, but you know that a divorce happened and that colors the story.
[Brandon] But you do know.
[Howard] Dan knows that.
[Dan] Dan knows, but you guys don't need to. The details that you get are about how he left, so why gets filled in by the way that the characters act. That gets filled in because I know, but that suggests, it implies more than it comes right out...

[Brandon] Couple of things I'm seeing here. Howard says look for the story. Dan essentially is saying look for the conflicts. Look for points of conflict and world build there. It came out in our world building podcast that we said that. How do we treat history differently than other types of world building, though?
[Howard] I think history... one of the things that's fun to look at with regard to history is the whole concept that history repeats itself. It can be very fun to world build history when what you are writing is something that is actually foreshadowing events that are going to happen in the book. This happened the same way a second time. Robert Jordan The Wheel of Time obviously does a lot of that.
[Brandon] That's the whole concept.
[Howard] Exactly. So borrow from the greats and enjoy that to some extent.

[Howard] The second thing is causative nature. It is part of our programming as human beings to look at the things that happen to us and try to describe why they happened. The way your story opens... the opening states of the characters, the nations, the landscapes, whatever... something caused that. Looking at those causes, or looking at the fact that a cause must exist will often tell you, "Gosh, this mountain looks funny because a wizard hit it with a magic sword." Boom, story, I've got a place to start.
[Dan] One thing that I want to point out here that ties into that point, is in the actual study of history, one of the worst things you can do is what they call monocausationalism, which essentially says never assume that one thing caused something else. When you look at the Civil War, don't... we no longer say that that war was fought solely because of slavery. There's actually dozens of reasons that it happened. A piece of advice for listeners is when you're building a history, don't go the monocausationalist route. Have it round enough that you don't just point at one thing and simplify everything.
[Brandon] I want to jump in on this, because one of the notes I wrote down when preparing for this podcast is something that we have a problem with in fantasy is that. Not only will we often say there was one cause, but everyone in every nation all across the world knows...
[Howard] Knows that was the cause.
[Brandon] That's the cause. There is one history for the entire world. Remember also that history is defined by who is looking at it and who writes it down. Different people are going to interpret differently. You are going to have wildly different views on events that happened in the past.
[Howard] That is one of the things that I love about the Iron Kingdoms role-playing setting. As players, there is a solid history that we know about. As characters, depending on which background you get, you don't know the nature of some of these things. In fact, the game guides are designed to give you backstory that says, "If you grew up this way, you don't believe in this god, or if you do believe in it, you believe that it originated in this way." It's fascinating and it's great advice for writers.
[Brandon] Now I wanna do say. This is tough to do. I've tried to do it... very hard to do. To have a small segment of characters and get across to people that the world is viewed in so many different ways. It's very difficult to do.

[Brandon] But I want to take one step back and say when you're world building history, ask yourself, "What is the purpose?" I am very goal driven when I write, and maybe this is why this helps me. But what is the purpose, why are you working on the history? I come up with two answers. One is to give the submersion, to make it feel like the world is real, and the other is to provide conflict, to set up conflicts that reach back through time that are now influencing the characters and making your main conflict here. When you are world building your history, looking at those two things and saying, "Why am I doing what I'm doing? How am I using this in my story? What is it going to add?" If the answer is it's not really going to add that much, it's just fun, that's when you stop.
[Howard] That's what I was going to bring up next. If you are writing these histories and they are fun stories to tell, but they are not helping you...
[Brandon] Yeah, they're distractions.
[Howard] Shape your main stories, then you either need to go into those stories and say, "I am having so much fun telling this story about the wizard and the magic sword cutting a hole in the mountain that I'm just going to write that novel."
[Brandon] Or I'm going to make it much more important to the conflicts that are happening in the story.
[Howard] Or it's time to stop and write something else.
[Dan] Very nice.

[Brandon] One thing that... during the break... that producer Jordo brought up that I think is worthy of mentioning. Early on, the first half of the podcast, I kept wanting to ask the question and we never got to it, of how do you decide what is important enough to spend your time world building it, how do you pick these elements that you are going to put in? The advice he gave, which is great advice, is just write the thing. Then figure out where your points of conflict are. Or, as you're writing, you will come to a point and say, "This sword is becoming really important to this story. I'm going to need to know so that I can give the hints that I need to." At that point, you can stop and world build the sword. It's always okay to go back and fix it.
[Howard] Except for me. Luxury!
[Brandon] Except for you. Sorry, Howard. Writing prompt us, Howard?

[Howard] Writing prompt. There's a war. You're writing a historical paragraph about a war that has five distinct causes. Come up with all five and justify them.
[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. We are done, you are out of excuses, now go write.
Tags: history, illusion, monocausation, multiple causation, world building, writing excuses
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