Borrowing from History

When I was growing up, I believed that fantasy was the best of the genres because its plots contained things that could never happen in any other genre.  I this is still true (but for different reasons), what I was seeing as outlandish characters and enigmatic civilizations in fantasy was and is really the skillful re-appropriation of researched things by fantasy authors.  So, to all you poo-poo-ers who say that fantasy authors need not research, that the content is imagined and the job made easier because of it, prepare to hear just the opposite.

Fantasy takes big cues from both history and anthropology, and the very best authors in our midst have borrowed their fair share.  Don’t believe me?  Check out Philip the Fair (The Iron King… how badass is that?) and his descendants, who served as the inspiration for the Lannisters of Westeros.  Or read House of Chains by Steven Erikson and try not to draw connections between the stone-wrought blade of Karsa Orlong and the obsidian swords of Aztec jaguar warriors (Erikson is an archaeologist, anthropologist,and author, too!).

It comes down to this: if you read enough history, you’ll understand that crazier things have happened in our own world than in any fantasy universe.  However, fantasy has the advantage of fiction in that it can bring these crazy ideas from different places all together.

This is where the research comes in.  Research is, in the end, borrowing or reusing ideas for a different end goal.  So, when perusing the dusty halls of human experience, remember to bring your notebook.  I’ll give you a few examples of some of the ones that have stood out, and how I might borrow them:

  • In ceremonies throughout Asia, masks representing evil are hung in graveyards so that they absorb the power of the dead.  I thought this could be a very interesting system of “magic” in a fantasy world, where weapons or armor “ferment” in power and become more deadly as a result.
  • Vlad the Impaler was so angered by a few Turkish emissaries who didn’t remove their Phrygian caps that he had their hats nailed to their heads so that they could never remove them again. This is an easy way to show that a character is truly unhinged.  Instead of just saying your villain is evil, here is a great way to show it… 
  • In Norse mythology, there is a ship called Naglfar tethered to the root of Yggdrasil and it is made completely of human fingernails.  This image is horrifying to me, mostly because I immediately think about how many fingernails it must have taken to build an entire ship… I might include something like it in a more nightmarish dream-sequence.

There’s so many more, but I’m not about to divulge my best gems.  It’s your job to research and find them for yourself!

For a few places to start, try Runciman’s History of the Crusades or Mortimer’s Time Traveler Guides, or just dive into one of the many hundreds of mythologies the human race has collected, since they’re evidence of our very best and most staying narratives.

The trick is then to make these images your own; to bend them and massage them and eventually assimilate them with your own writing, thereby building an entirely new mythos.  To that I say: Good luck, and happy researching!


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Don’t steal my words.  They’re mine. Zachary Barnes 2016©

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