Every single writer is a thief. This is a well established fact. Writing is not you extracting gossamer threads from the æther and weaving them into a wholly original story that has never been told and bears no resemblance to actual events, as lovely and romantic as that notion is. Writing is regurgitating a bunch of what you’ve picked up through your observational skills and media consumption and hoping that you’ve consumed a wide enough variety that the end result looks sufficiently different and better from its base components.
When you think of stories, think of them as an extension of yourself. In order to create that extension, to grow it, you need to be eating a varied diet and making sure you get enough of all the proper nutrients. You cannot craft a good story from bad brain food any more than you could develop an athlete’s body while eating nothing but mcribs for every meal. This is tricky if you’re a genre reader because that are so many good genre books coming out on a daily basis that it’s already impossible to keep up with more than your favorite authors, new ones introduced by word of mouth and a speckling of intriguing looking debuts. Trust me, I know. My plate right now is piled up with Hex, The Corroded Man, Wolfhound Empire, Snakewood, and that’s just my older backlog. Oh, and Alan Moore’s monster tome Jerusalem. And the upcoming Lost Gods and Taste of Honey.
The problem is if I only read those and go to write a book I’m just going to be aping them, and probably poorly, because while reading other fantasy writers’ work is tremendously inspiration it does not provide an appropriate level of building blocks for me. For that I need to turn to history.
I admit my bias here. I am a history major. I actually switched over from being an English major halfway through college not because I disliked those courses at all but because I had dipped into high level history lessons for a couple of semesters and found that the research and note taking skills they were teaching me was far better for my writing than the literary analysis skills I was picking up in English.
If you’re going to steal… Well, let me put it in boring historical education terms. When you go to write an essay your argument gains more weight when it relies on as many primary sources as possible. Interviews, diary entries, eyewitness reports, it’s still going to have inherent biases but provide you with the clearest picture of the event. Secondary sources may be good and put things in a wider context but they’re still being filtered through an additional level of narrative. Tertiary sources are even more dangerous and can border on opinion pieces in extreme cases. It’s the same with fantasy. You can treat fantasy novels as secondary or tertiary sources to the events they were inspired by. You’re going to find more fertile creative ground if you drill through them to get to the original historical stuff that they were based on.
Take a look at something really iconic like the Battle of Pelennor. Very dramatic, huge clash between multiple infantry battalions, wedges of cavalry crashing into flanks, back and forth on a plain that becomes soaked with blood over the course of the battle. If you read it and want to write a battle story, you can take all your inspiration from Pelennor and probably come out with something that will either look like a homage to or a ripoff of Tolkien. If you drill down farther, take a look at some of the real world battles that inspired Tolkien in the first place. Buy a book on the Battle of Maurica or the Battle of Nedao and you’ll get the stuff that makes Pelennor look like child’s play, and if you incorporate elements of those into your story you’re going to come out with something that has a similar feel to Pelennor. Same family but not necessarily a direct descendant with all the baggage that entails.
George R. R. Martin’s another good one for this. Any major event in Game of Thrones can probably be drawn back to something even worse happening in real life. Want to write something as shocking as the Red Wedding chapter? Take a look at the primary sources Martin was using and skim through various medieval Scottish massacres that necessitated the laws of hospitality be upgraded and long daggers included in formal wear in case you needed to brutally murder your host before he did the same to you.
So in addition to all those books I listed back toward the beginning of this post, I have also hit the stage where I start getting Very Weird Looks from the librarian because I’m forcing myself to make time to read other stuff, like Lawrence in Arabia and Pre-Ottoman Turkey or The Lords of Battle. I’m incorporating elements of steppe nomad culture into the background of my books, but if I took it all from other fantasy novels or wikipedia entries I’d probably come out with something so thin as to be offensive. Compare to my reading the ascent of Genghis Khan the other week and ending up with seven pages of notes about early practices of the Turkic and Mongol tribes where they’d do stuff like train for war during monthly hunts by coordinating massive rings of hunters who would herd animals into a circular killing ground but not be allowed to fire a shot until the leader sounded the call, in order to instill discipline and encourage teamwork in the men and women who would later use similar tactics against armies that shot back.
I’ll take a second and plug Dan Carlin’s Hardcore History podcast. I used to listen to it all the time but kind of fell off the wagon during a dry run when he was taking awhile to put together double length episodes for a special. I started listening to them again last month and just caught up, and if anything the new stuff is even better than the classics. I don’t agree with 100% of what he thinks (he does go through pains to point out he’s not a historian, just an enthusiast with an active imagination) but his ancient world episodes have been a godsend and integral to a handful of my short stories. His episodes are like two bucks apiece and run for upwards of four hours, and he rotates through a selection of freebies to try out on his site/youtube. I particularly recommend Blueprint for Armageddon and the Kings of Kings trilogy.
If you want a really good example of stealing from history, Ken Liu’s The Wall of Storms just came out this week and improves on Grace of Kings in every single way. And that’s speaking as someone who loved Grace. I’m trying my best not to spoil anything from the first book here, since there are major gamechangers and twists at the end of it that have an impact all throughout Wall. What I like about this series in particular is Liu’s narrative style. It reads like a dramatized historical piece as you’d find in the works of Luo Guanzhong (duh) or Herodotus. It’s got a sweeping omniscient narrator that pans around the setting and provides an overview, and then zooms in on particular vignettes and characters who are pushing the plot along with their actions big and small.Where Grace was a book about the old order being toppled down and then a civil war kicking in when the inheritors can’t decide which version of “better” they’d like to install over the ashes, Wall is wider in scope. It’s about trying to push progressive reform through an incredibly regressive government. It’s about first contact and cultural misunderstanding. It’s about engineering, and exploration, and warring philosophies and so much more. What immediately stands out is that Liu has rectified my biggest problem with the first book, which was that the female characters were very much pawns and background pieces compared to the males. Here we’re retroactively examining why that was, and looking at what happened to those women when the men (and thus the narrative voice) wasn’t paying attention to them. It also incorporates gay couples in an incredibly nice, low-key way. A couple of guys (high ranking military men, no less) adopt a baby and no one bats an eye. There are references to widows who are no longer obligated to seek out a new man shacking up together for emotional and physical support pretty regularly. It’s completely normal to the setting and just made me feel good to read about.
One of the biggest complaints I heard about the first book, and that I understand, is that the narrative is a bit dry. The battles and duels are done up like historical texts more than anything else, they aren’t written to be very visceral. I think that Wall improves on them quite a bit, there are battle scenes where I felt incredibly tense. Not only that but he applies the same voice to any conflict. The first quarter of the book is dominated by a massive standardized test where hundreds of students compete to see who will join the royal schools and it’s as engaging and page-turning as any combat sequence I can think of, especially since the writing in this world is made up of wax logograms which must be affixed to silk scrolls and then carved to be pleasing to the eye as well as presenting a compelling argument. Reading about one of the protagonists carefully arranging her essay wax drop by wax drop was absolutely engrossing and I should probably stop before I sound even nerdier than I do now.
It is a love letter to epic fantasy and at the same time it upends so many of the tropes and stereotypes. It feels like a breath of fresh air for the entire genre and there’s an element of unpredictability that will keep you guessing at what will happen next. This second book also massively expanded the mythology of the setting after the first one was incredibly low in magic, we’re starting to see things like the gods creeping back into the world after a long absence, and metaphysics versus technological advances, and the titular wall of storms which has to be read going in blind for the full impact. Liu doesn’t just remix Han Dynasty legends either, I’ve noticed elements of Malay, Māori and other tidbits of Polynesian folklore showing up across the island empire.
If you didn’t care for the first book, I’m going to do something I rarely do and say try the second one anyway because the improvements are very noticeable. If you haven’t read the first one, pick them both up, if you are the kind of person who enjoys my esoteric recommendations and weird history ramblings you’ll probably love this series.