Thursday 8 May 2014

World building: where historical and speculative fiction meet

Over at her blog, Pamela Freeman, an author of fantasy, children's and now historical fiction, muses on world building in a recent post.

Her current work is set in WWI, and some of her beta readers, she discovered, knew little of that era. She realised you can't take historical knowledge for granted, so the same issues of "how much of the world to show" occur as do when creating a world beyond our own in far time or space.

As I wrote on her blog, it makes me think of how one wastes the knowledge of the older members of our families. Sometimes, they don’t want to talk about it, and we can’t do anything about that. My grandfather, who came back from Gallipoli with serious “shell shock” as they called it then, never spoke of his experiences to my knowledge, and I suspect he had good reason for his reticence.

Other times, they just don’t think to talk about it.

My parents were too young to actively fight in WWII, but both have amazing tales to tell of the era. My dad, on duty as a naval spotter, the day the Japanese submarines came into Sydney Harbour. My mother, working for the National Emergency Services, getting the call to dash down two levels below Wynyard Station where she’d transcribe secret service messages–she was a whiz at shorthand. Stories I’d never heard until recent times, as they slowly succumb to dementia and their past returns at the expense of their present.

This is the history of real people, the history that will be lost as they die or forget or fail to tell the stories. It is one of the reasons that historical fiction, well-researched, is simply crucial to our understanding of ourselves. History books might capture the big event and the Significant Dates, but it takes fiction to truly understand the personal, the emotional and the intimate.

Our failure to seek out those stories not only diminishes our relationships, it diminishes our history.


  1. I think there's a real resurgence of interest in Australia in our history - and perhaps not just here. Shows like Who Do You Think You Are? work because people are fascinated by the personal stories behind the history

    1. I hope that's so. The growth in fascination for ancestry research suggests something similar. Curious, isn't it? I wonder if it is related to that famous bulge of baby boomers reaching A Certain Age.

      Turning fifty was significant for me in that regard. It suddenly occurred to me that twice my life was a century (yes, I am indeed a maths whiz), and once you can readily grasp how long a century is, then two, three, four centuries become a doddle. And before you know it, you find yourself being able to contemplate a thousand years ago without it looking like something from the Planet Zorg. When I did my duty as a person of my age and started looking at my family tree and got back to the 1300 (in an apparently seriously inbred line that refused to budge from a small village in Devon) I was startled to see how very few generations it really was.

      Age brings context.