Tuesday, December 16

Worldbuilding Lessons from History: Part Two

By Alex Hughes, @ahugheswriter

Part of the How They Do It Series

Alex Hughes returns to the lecture hall today with more great tips on how history can help you develop your story worlds. An added bonus--to celebrate the release of her newest novel, Vacant, she's running a contest/game/scavenger hunt (with prizes!), so check out the details below.

Alex Hughes, the author of the award-winning Mindspace Investigations series from Roc, has lived in the Atlanta area since the age of eight. Her short fiction has been published in several markets including EveryDay Fiction, Thunder on the Battlefield and White Cat Magazine. She is an avid cook and foodie, a trivia buff, and a science geek, and loves to talk about neuroscience, the Food Network, and writing craft—but not necessarily all at the same time! For all the latest news and free short stories, join Alex’s email list.

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Take it away Alex...

Back in October I wrote a post about Worldbuilding Lessons From History. It was so well received that I thought I’d write another. So here it is. Things I’ve Learned From History for my science fiction / fantasy worlds. Part Deux.

As you go through the ideas from history, ask yourself: what lessons can you apply to your story worlds? How do these ideas impact the people and situations your characters face? How can your characters use these ideas to overcome obstacles and reach their goals? On the other hand, what obstacles will arise out of these ideas that your characters must face?

The Poisonous Tomato: Everybody Knows (and Everybody May Be Wrong)

For several hundred years in Europe, everybody knew that tomatoes were poisonous. They were red, for one thing—suspiciously red. And, truth be told, rich people who ate them on their pewter plates frequently keeled over dead. Not to mention the incredibly ugly and dangerous worms that lived on the plants. Why, eating a tomato was like taking your life in your hands—not worth it—and a smart person was well advised to avoid all such fruit. On the other hand, putting lead-based makeup on your face was totally sensible, and helped you get that lovely pallor that society was looking for.

While ideas about tomatoes and lead makeup seem very silly to modern sensibilities, don’t get lost in the rightness or the wrongness of these ideas. Instead, think about what this says about humanity. If all of a society believes something strongly enough, even if that something is contrary to objective reality, people will act on that belief. Those actions and that belief will have a variety of consequences for the society. Not eating tomatoes is a great beginning, but a harmless one. The worst that may happen is that someone tries to poison someone unsuccessfully (or successfully: think of the plates, and the fact that the stems and leaves of the tomato plant are, in fact, poisonous). But, in the case of the lead based makeup, going along with society might lead to weight and hair loss, stomach cramps, pain, memory loss, and even death. Or it might protect you against common infections, like it may have with the Egyptians. People rarely continue with a habit that doesn’t have at least some benefits involved.

Ask yourself: what beliefs are important to the society I’m building? What consequences do those beliefs have in actions? Do any of those beliefs interact with a different reality? How do the people in the society deal with those interactions? What benefits and detriments do those beliefs lead to, and how does this impact my characters’ stories?

Feed Your Peasants: Empires Topple Over Bread

One of the most notorious quotes from the French Revolution is attributed to Marie Antoinette. According to the story, when told that her people had no bread, she told her advisor to “let them eat cake.” While most historians dispute this quote, it’s still a great story to illustrate how disassociated the nobility was from the starvation of their people, and it’s a story that was told by revolutionaries over and over to justify their actions.

In history, a pattern happens over and over again: when the people starve, they rebel with violence. The French Revolution is a great example, but the Russian Revolution and the Peasant Wars in Germany during the early modern period also fit the pattern brilliantly. When people of the lower classes start losing the ability to survive, they begin to have nothing to lose. The trouble is, rebellions started over anger and without a clear plan for succession generally take decades to settle down into a better situation for the people in general, if they settle at all. Having nothing to lose does not necessarily mean you can handle what you gain.

So what do we learn from history? If you want to stay in charge, make sure you feed your peasants well enough that they don’t feel they have nothing to lose by rebelling. Otherwise you may face the guillotines, and the peasants will be debating their new form of government without you.

As you write your story world, ask yourself: how well fed are your lower classes? What are the power inequalities of the world, and how desperate are the have-nots? What would happen if they grew a little less or a little more desperate? What actions could your powerful take to keep them happy or drive them to rebellion? What would happen if they did rebel?

Distract Your Detractors: The Coliseum and Reality TV

While we’re on the subject of having and keeping power, here’s another lesson on power from history: contented citizens don’t require much work from a secret police. And what’s one of the most harmless and best ways to keep your citizens contented (other than bread)? Entertainment and distraction!

The Romans distracted their people with gladiatorial fights and mock sea battles in the Coliseum. These epic and bloody events provided entertainment and something to talk about that had nothing to do with the government’s decisions. These days, I am reminded more of reality TV and loud media controversies while bills get quietly passed through Congress on topics the American people may not be fans of. When the people in power want to further their interests, a healthy dose of distraction might keep their detractors away.

As you write your story world, ask yourself: whose interests oppose those of the people in power? How can the people in power (or other actors) use distraction to disarm their opponents? What happens when this strategy succeeds, and what happens when it backfires? Can distraction work for awhile and then stop working?

So, there you go: three new worldbuilding lessons from history. Look for opportunities to build in beliefs about the world that everyone knows, beliefs that may be partially or completely wrong. Pay attention to how well-fed or hungry the peasants (or lower classes) of the world are, and what that might make them do. And look for opportunities for your power players to use distraction and/or entertainment to further their own interests at the expense of others. As always, mixing and matching these ideas may get you even further.

About Vacant

Nothing ruins a romantic evening like a brawl with lowlifes—especially when one of them later turns up dead and my date, Detective Isabella Cherabino, is the #1 suspect. My history with the Atlanta PD on both sides of the law makes me an unreliable witness, so while Cherabino is suspended, I’m paying my bills by taking an FBI gig.

I’ve been hired to play telepathic bodyguard for Tommy, the ten-year-old son of a superior court judge in Savannah presiding over the murder trial of a mob-connected mogul. After an attempt on the kid’s life, the Feds believe he’s been targeted by the businessman’s “associates.”

Turns out, Tommy’s a nascent telepath, so I’m trying to help him get a handle on his Ability. But it doesn’t take a mind reader to see that there’s something going on with this kid’s parents that’s stressing him out more than a death threat…

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The Vacant Clue Game

How To Play
  1. Just like the classic game of CLUE, your job is to try to determine WHO committed a crime, in what SETTING, and with what WEAPON.
  2. In the game to celebrate the release of VACANT, most of the clues will relate to the Mindspace Investigations world and characters.
  3. At participating blog tour stops, you’ll find clues, clearly marked, that you can cross those off your checklist. At the end of the blog tour, you should be able to see who/where/what the culprit is by which items on your list are remaining. To be clear, the clues you FIND are not going to be the winning guesses… you’re trying to determine what is left at the end of the game.
  4. Starting on December 20th, there will be a rafflecopter entry form on her blog to make your guess. A grand prize winner will be chosen randomly from the correct entries after the blog tour is over, on December 24th. What’s the prize, you ask?
  5. Winner gets a $25 gift card to Barnes & Noble, a signed copy of Marked, and a character from a future book named after him/her.
  6. Be sure to check each participating blog on the tour for interviews, guest posts, excerpts, reviews, individual blog prizes (all sorts of Mindspace Investigations goodies) and, of course, the clues!!

Blog Tour Schedule:

Nov 25th - SF Signal
Nov 26th - I Smell Sheep
Nov 27th – Thanksgiving (US)
Nov 28th - Ashley’s Random Blog
Dec 1st - What The Cat Read, 
Dec 2nd - NicholasKaufmann.com
Eclectic Library
Books Make Me Happy
Dec 3rd - Vampire Book Club
Dec 4th - Little Read Riding Hood
Dec 5th - Insane About Books
Dec 8th - BiblioFiend
Dec 9th - Smart Girls Love Sci/Fi & Paranormal Romance
Dec 10th - Reading Reality
Dec 11th - Short & Sweet Reviews
Between The Lines
Dec 12th - That’s What I’m Talking About
Anna’s Book Blog
Dec 15th - Tynga’s Reviews
Dec 16th - Janice Hardy – Fiction University
Dec 17th - Preturnatura
Amberkatze’s Book Blog
Dec 18th - Fantasy Literature
That’s What I’m Talking About
Dec 19th - Books That Hook
Literal Addiction
Dec 21st - Literary Escapism
Dec 22nd - Open Book Society
Dec 23rd - My Bookish Ways


  1. Nice, thought-provoking blog. thanks!

  2. Great post! You've opened up a lot of possibilities for my stories.