Saturday, March 21, 2015

History as a Source of Inspiration

Maybe you have heard the old writing adage "write what you know." Though still widely used in creative writing classes today, I say "old adage" because many writers, especially those whose primary genre is fantasy, balk at the idea of using only personal experiences as creative material.

While personal experience definitely has its place in the creation of a narrative (and no doubt such experiences naturally manifest in any type of writing), authors should not feel constrained to simply documenting their own limited sources of knowledge in a fictitious setting. As such, much and more can be said for the creative mind as a source of knowledge on its own.

After all, who said that fiction, by definition comprised of elements invented or imagined, has to be a reflection of one person's life experiences? Authors should feel free to create (note the word create) stories that encapsulate ideas and concepts gleaned from multiple sources, both real and imagined.

Fortunately, we see many writers who have abandoned this adage in favor of creating worlds that draw from imagined and real scenarios, or a unique blend of both.

Take fantasy writer George R. R. Martin, for instance.

In his A Song of Ice and Fire series, Martin pulls from major historical events like the War of the Roses, the Hundreds' Year War, the Dark Ages, and a variety of other well-known historical occurrences.

But what makes Martin's approach so insanely successful and popular?

In addition to being well-written with suspenseful plots, Martin's books attract so many people because of their genuine feel. The history and cultures presented in Martin's fictitious world draws on our awareness of cultures and history in the primary world. We can easily envision the conflict between the Lannisters and the Starks because most of us have some cursory, subconscious awareness of the tension between the Lancasters and the Yorks that started the War of the Roses. Think of the culture surrounding Slaver's Bay and the idea that an ownership-based society is controlled by wealthy families, many of whom have a "god-like" status and live in lavish stepped pyramids. The slave culture of the Yunkai'i, Astapori, and Meereenese of Slaver's Bay is so real, so believable to readers because it so closely parallels the known history of the Egyptians.

The Known World, Game of Thrones Wiki

Even the geographic structure of his world resonates with readers on some level. The civilized western society of Westeros closely patterns that of England, even as far as where the capitol is located and how people in the North (the equivalent of Scotland) feel about people from the "southron" lands. In Westeros, readers will also find the Wall, the barrier that separates civilized Westeros from the wildlings and Others, and which closely resembles Hadrian's Wall. On the "mainland," we see the nomadic Dothraki peoples who inhabit the wide expanse of the Dothraki Sea, who may be construed as the equivalent of the Vandals or the Mongols. To the far east, Martin writes of the land of Essos, and the mystical, fabled city of Asshai. In the ASOIAF world, much of the lore and knowledge surrounding Essos and Asshai heavily patterns after Asia and the idea that China is the center of the world. Finally, Sothoryos, a land of dangerous animals inhabited by dark-skinned people, brings to mind Africa.

Burgeoning writers could take a lesson from fantasy writers like Martin: ditch the adage and ground what you write in the shared history of the world.

The end goal for all writers is to have their work read, ideally by many people. If people from across the globe can read and connect with your work by drawing upon their own experiences, not your's, you have done your job as a writer.

The Known World Map:
All other images are part of the creative commons.


Kody Kasper said...

This is similar to what I wrote about for WCD!

Majesta Miles said...

It couldn't POSSIBLY be because I helped you brainstorm, could it? ;)