Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Three Reasons I Chose Not to Set My Fantasy in a Euro-Medieval World

By Tara Maya, @taramayastales

Part of the How They Do It Series

JH: Please help me welcome Tara Maya to the lecture hall today, to share some thoughts on worldbuilding and how useful exploring humanity's past can be. If you've ever thought about creating a world, but didn't want to set it in the "default medieval fantasy" world, this will certain spark some ideas.

Tara Maya has lived in Africa, Europe and Asia. She’s pounded sorghum with mortar and pestle in a little clay village where the jungle meets the desert, meditated in a Buddhist monastery in the Himalayas and sailed the Volga river to a secret city that was once the heart of the Soviet space program. This first-hand experience, as well as research into the strange and piquant histories of lost civilizations, inspires her writing. Her terrible housekeeping, however, is entirely the fault of pixies.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie Bound

Take it away Tara...

Here’s a shameful secret: Back when I started my Unfinished Song fantasy, I wasn’t trying to be fresh, original or non-Western. In fact, I wanted to write a “classic” fantasy. I knew I wanted actual pixies and faeries in it. I wanted it to be both epic and a fairytale—an epic faerie tale. I knew I wanted the magic to be based on dancing and color, and that the ability to dance the whole rainbow would be almost extinct in their world. Other than that, I just planned to include all the tropes of the genre. Young scion of farmers sets off on a quest, finds a magic doo-hickey, and turns out to be the only one with the power to save the world. The setting was cliché because I didn’t feel like investing the time in world-building for a mere “practice” story. My original heroine, Dindi, was a peasant girl; my original hero, Kavio, was a prince.

I wrote three chapters in this frame of mind, seat of the pants, no plan, no world-building, not really taking the story seriously.

Surprise! I stalled.

It turns out I love world-building. It’s one of the reasons I read and write fantasy. Without that investment in a unique and gorgeous world, I just couldn’t find the enthusiasm I needed to write the story. I set it aside for a while.

What knocked sense into me? I don’t know. A fairy whispered in my ear that I needed to change the setting. It needed to be set in a time I had never seen a fantasy set before: with Neolithic rather than medieval technology. The Neolithic Era was a particular time period in human history, but it also refers to a stage of civilization, and I use it in the later sense. Neolithic, or “new stone age” technology means that the people primarily use flint and obsidian tipped arrows and spears. They don’t have bronze or iron. They don’t have swords. They don’t have castles. They don’t have scrolls or books or libraries. They don’t have lamps or arches or sails.

They aren’t cavemen, however. They have sophisticated pottery, weaving, rugs, sewing and dyes. They smelt gold. They don’t have kings or feudal lords or priests, but they do have the beginnings of a more caste-divided society and hierarchy.

While I don’t know how this idea came to me, I do remember how it energized me. The whole story excited me again. The early time period worked for three reasons.

One, the main storyline was inspired by a Polynesian myth, so this was a tip of the hat to that non-European setting. Two, it fit my fancy that the events of the Unfinished Song were the “original” and “primordial” events which are the secret roots of all our fairy tales. We know that the story of Cinderella as recorded by the Brother’s Grimm was not the only or original story. What if it were a distorted version of something that happened during the Dreamtime of the human race, when all myths and fairytales were real? I don’t actually use the term Dreamtime in my story (which is from Aboriginal legend), but I drew on that concept in how I thought about the story.

Two, every culture around the world has gone through a stage of Neolithic level technology. Some cultures, like Asia and Europe and the Incas and Aztecs and great empires of West Africa, later moved on to more sophisticated technologies, involving iron and feudalism, but everyone at one time used spears and swords. Every place on earth has immense, mysterious monuments made from dragging big stones around. This meant that I could easily mix and match my cultural inspiration. I could use Hopi agriculture, Celtic pig-farming and musical traditions, Zulu warfare, West African Initiation ceremonies, and so on. For the hero and heroine’s people, I drew strongly on Hopi and Zuni cultures, which has led some readers and reviewers to think that the entire culture is based on Native American history. One reviewer expressed disappointment when horses turned up. That was actually a difficult choice for me, and sometimes I do wish I had left them horse-less. However, I included it because there are so many interesting horse-centered cultures in the world, and I wanted to explore that with one of the tribes.

Three, the excuse to research obscure and exotic Neolithic cultures ignited my enthusiasm for the story, and has kept me excited about it ever since. The biggest problem with the standard fantasy pseudo-medieval-pseudo-European setting is not that it is medieval or that it is European or even that it has been done before. It is because the writer doesn’t take the time to study real history (or “real” mythology) as a model, but simply bases their own world on worlds in other fantasy books. The result has much the same problem as cloning a clone, or xeroxing a xerox. The quality fades the more derivative your product is. The original research behind Kushiel’s Dart by Jacqueline Carey or The Hallowed Hunt by Lois McMaster Bujold, shines through, and those stories don’t come across as McClones of McFantasyLand at all.

I have a Master’s Degree in History, admittedly, so that’s a clue about how deeply I adore history. I adore research in musty old libraries and when I do internet research, it’s in JSTOR, not Wikipeadia. I’m a glutton for eight hundred page tomes on the kinship systems of Melanesian islanders. I also love anthropology, archeology, sociology, just about any –ology you can think of. I’m a nerd’s nerd, in the liberal art’s spectrum of the Geek Rainbow.

This is not to say that there weren’t challenges in leaving the beaten path. Do you know how many times I would have a character about to open a door, or knock on a door, or slam a door before I remembered that they don’t have doors! Oy. People! Invent hinges already! It’s also hard to give my hero a truly Cool Weapon of Power when they don’t have swords. But even challenges can create interesting opportunities. I gave a supporting character a Singing Bow, which can also be made into a harp. This idea came from a historian who speculated that the first stringed instruments were actually bows that warriors plucked when they were sitting peacefully around the campfire, bored and (almost certainly) drunk.

There’s so much human history and so many different cultures to study for inspiration for fantasy which have yet to be mined. The real is so much more fantastic and bizarre than most of what is portrayed in fantasy and science fiction as exotic or alien. One of the reasons to read these genres is to stretch our imagination and our empathy. We shouldn’t shortchange ourselves by re-treading the same worn paths, but should be brave enough to follow history back along rarely explored by-ways for inspiration.

About The Unfinished Song


Dindi can't do anything right, maybe because she spends more time dancing with pixies than doing her chores. Her clan hopes to marry her off and settle her down, but she dreams of becoming a Tavaedi, one of the powerful warrior-dancers whose secret magics are revealed only to those who pass a mysterious Test during the Initiation ceremony. The problem? No-one in Dindi's clan has ever passed the Test. Her grandmother died trying. But Dindi has a plan.


Kavio is the most powerful warrior-dancer in Faearth, but when he is exiled from the tribehold for a crime he didn't commit, he decides to shed his old life. If roving cannibals and hexers don't kill him first, this is his chance to escape the shadow of his father's wars and his mother's curse. But when he rescues a young Initiate girl, he finds himself drawn into as deadly a plot as any he left behind. He must decide whether to walk away or fight for her... assuming she would even accept the help of an exile.

Website | Facebook | Twitter | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Indie Bound


  1. Excellent post, Tara! I love the idea of a neolithic setting - there are so many possibilities that haven't been explored before. As a fellow history and world-building nerd, I'm also super jealous of all your experiences. :) They sound incredible, and what a wonderful way to make those elements of culture come alive in your writing!

  2. Oh, this book sounds amazing! You're right that it's easy to just slip into generic fantasy -and that the Middle Ages don't have to be generic at all! I was thinking about that recently while reading Crispin: Cross of Lead.

  3. As I almost never leave a post on this blog before finishing reading it, this time I just couldn't continue... Cast society without iron or even bronze? But smelting gold? Sorry, first you find and smelt bronze, than iron, than you can start with gold. With just stones you can't build cast society. That's how civilisations go. I know that the rest of the post may be super-logical and good, however, my brain shut down when I read that nonsense.

  4. I don't want to be snarky to anyone, but my understanding is you smelt ore to get the metal out. Therefor, no one "smelts" bronze because it's an alloy (of copper and tin). Gold can be melted over a hot wood fire. You need coal to melt iron. I've got no problem with a Neolithic culture that works gold but doesn't know how to make an alloy or build a coal-fired forge. I also don't see what metal has to do with having (or not having) a caste social structure.

    I personally love the idea of a Neolithic fantasy setting. The technology in my own WIP is pseudo-renaissance (no gunpowder or firearms) but not everyone in the world is at the same level. There's magic, and I'm in the camp that believes magic use could (and would) stifle much technological innovation.

  5. Please don't say 'Aboriginal legend' when you specifically mean Indigenous Australian legends. I have no problem with the word aboriginal (lowercase), but it's not the name of the Aboriginal Australian peoples. Abbreviating Aboriginal Australian or Indigenous Australian to 'Aboriginal' is not only incorrect, it's also insensitive in the same way that abbreviating 'Native Americans' to 'Natives' is insensitive. Furthermore, it assumes that there's only one 'Aboriginal' peoples, in this case the Aboriginal Australian peoples, when there is in fact aboriginal peoples in other countries. The word 'aboriginal' is commonly used as an adjective, such as 'aboriginal art' or 'aboriginal culture', with the understanding of what countries' aboriginal peoples are being referred to, such as the 'aboriginal art of Tahiti'. As an adjective, of course, the word 'aboriginal' isn't capitalised as you've done in your article.

    I have other issues with you simplifying Indigenous Australian legend as though it's all one homogeneous thing, as well as referring to 'some cultures, like Asia and Europe' as though 'Asia', for example, was one culture, but for the sake of brevity I'll end my comment here and hope that you'll refrain from further generalisation and insensitivity.

  6. I think it is interesting that working in a non-traditional setting causes so much controversy. I would love for there to be more diverse settings out there in the book world. I especially hope someone eventually tackles Babylon. :)

  7. It's funny how fantasy allows you to create just about anything, and still many writers choose same old European setting. :-) Personally, I prefer diverse narratives with people of all colours. N.K. Jemisin writes amazing fantasy, for example her The Killing Moon is based on Ancient Egypt and has lots of black characters. Very lush worldbuilding, highly recommended.