Worldbuilding Lessons from a History Major – Guest Post by Cate VanNostrand

Today I’m excited to share a guest post from Cate VanNostrand, who has been a long-time friend and supporter of my work and, I’m happy to announce, recently launched a blog where you can learn more about her and her work! There will be a link to her website at the bottom of the post and I highly recommend you check it out. But for now I’ll pass you over to her!

History has a huge impact on the way we write. Whether we’re basing our stories off of real-life historical events or using history to inspire our own worldbuilding efforts, history has the power to shape our writing and help us improve our craft. Here are some of the things I’ve learned as a history major and how I’ve applied them to my storyworld.

Lesson 1: Sometimes We Only Remember the Highlights

If someone were to ask you to name one moment in French history, what would you say?

The French Revolution is often what springs to mind first for most of us. However, France has been around since 486, when Clovis I became the first official “king of the Franks”. There are so many interesting figures of French history. Joan of Arc, the nineteen-year-old warrior who put Charles VII on the throne and helped end the 100 Years War, is one example. Charles de Gaulle, a World War II military leader and later president of France, is another.

Russian history is another great example. Most of us know how the Romanovs were brutally murdered in 1918 due to their royal standing, but few of us also know that Russia used to be commandeered by Vikings (more on that later). While some historic moments will never (and should never) be forgotten, sometimes we forget just how deep a culture’s history goes.

This can come into play in your worldbuilding. If you’re writing a story with multiple peoples, consider what each civilization knows about each other. In Lord of the Rings, almost everyone knows how Isildur defeated Sauron, and how he also took the One Ring for himself. But few people know that Númenor was destroyed because Men rebelled against Eru Illuvatar (Tolkien’s version of God) and worshiped Morgoth.

And don’t forget to take current events vs. history into account. In my work in progress, Heart of an Elf, the Woodland Elves are familiar with the Dwarven Wars and how the current king is the laughingstock of his realm. However, only elven scholars know about how the first human king after the Great Fire was courageous and led his people to victory against the Fallen Dwarves. Current events can have a huge impact on how one civilization views another; using history to show a kingdom’s true colors is a great way to give your storyworld depth.

Lesson 2: Some Legends Are Based in Truth

Legends are often founded in truth, or some semblance of it. King Arthur is said to have led the Britons against Anglo-Saxon leaders (this historical theory is the inspiration behind the 2004 movie King Arthur). Robin Hood’s existence is questionable, yet some scholars believe that the character from the 1819 novel Ivanhoe was based on real men who were loyal to King Richard the Lionheart. Even Abraham Lincoln and George Washington have become American legends.

When building the history of your storyworld, consider people who could be a source of heroism and inspiration for your characters. In Lord of the Rings, Lúthien Tinúviel was a legendary she-elf who passed up immortality in order to be with her love, Beren. Her story is referenced in The Fellowship of the Ring, and again in “The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen,” when Aragorn calls Arwen by Lúthien’s name. Who are some people that you can make into legends for your characters to look up to?

Lesson 3: Not Everyone Views History the Same Way

Last semester, I had the amazing opportunity to take a class on Russian history. One thing that stood out to me was the beginning of Russia, or “Kievan Rus”, as it was called. The origins of the Russian Empire are fairly sketchy, and due to this, there’s some division among Russian historians. The most prevalent theory (known as the Norman theory) dictates that the first king of Russia was a Viking named Rurik. The primary source for the Norman theory is The Russian Primary Chronicle, written by Nestor, a Russian monk. The problem with the Norman theory is that the Chronicle is not a completely trustworthy source, and this creates issues for the Russian historian community. In addition, there are some pro-Eastern historians that do not want their country to be affiliated with Vikings or any other Western located influence.

The point I’m making is that some people view history differently, either due to the difference in their cultures (when people hear about Vikings, they picture Ireland or Norway but not usually Russia) or because they don’t want to accept that as a viable theory. While this can be a headache for historians, it’s an easy way to create conflict in your storyworld.

Do your characters view history similarly across the geographical board? In the 2019 film Captain Marvel, Kree pilot Carol Danvers and her friends find out that the Skrull (an alien species Danvers has been told to fight against) were not the instigators of the Kree-Skrull conflict as Danvers was brought to believe, but were instead war-torn refugees. In Kara Swanson’s Heirs of Neverland trilogy, Peter and Claire believe that Captain Hook is a complete villain, but his side of the story is far more complex and tragic than they could have guessed.

One of your characters may have learned about a war or a certain era from one perspective. However, that may not be the same for other characters.

Lesson 4: Some Great Stories Fall Through the Cracks

Have you ever seen a movie where one of the subtitles is, “based on the forgotten true story”? Some amazing stories from history can fall through the cracks. NASA mathematician Margaret Johnson wasn’t a name that came up in our history textbooks, but after the 2017 movie Hidden Figures came out, her story became a nationwide sensation.

Additionally, an event that one culture may have never known about may be an essential part of another country’s culture. In my world history class last spring, we learned the sad story of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, an organization in the 1970s that fiercely protested against the Argentinian human rights violations. During my thirteen years of school, I had never heard how these brave women tied their childrens’ nappies around their heads and rallied against Argentina’s dictator, begging for the 3000 missing to come back home alive. But my teacher was Columbian, and all too familiar with the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo and many similar heart-wrenching stories.

This sad historical fact can have an impact on your storyworld’s history. Maybe one of your elf’s ancestors turns out to be a human, the first to marry an elf. (I’ve noticed that the lost-but-true-story technique works really well in terms of genealogy.) Finding out forgotten historical moments can change a character’s motivations entirely–and revamp your plot in the process.

Lesson 5: A Clash of Worldviews Can Lead to Pivotal Moments in History

All wars, battles, revolutions, and major political upheavals typically come down to one primary motive – a clash of worldviews. The Russian Revolution is one major example. The Romanov family had occupied the throne of the Russian Empire for 300 years, but in 1917, Nicholas II was forced to abdicate when the Bolsheviks caused the people to revolt against their tsar. While the royal family’s worldview was aristocratic and focused mainly on tradition, the common people were tired of decrepit living conditions. The result of the opposing mindsets was both tragic and dramatic.

The French Revolution worked in a similar fashion when starving peasants overthrew the restrictive and apathetic monarchy. After the dust settled, Napoleon Bonaparte, with a more expansive and less aggressive worldview, took over as dictator of France.

How can you use this in your worldbuilding? Think of it this way: what happens when differing worldviews collide? They cause conflict. Conflict is vital to a story’s progression. In Jodi Lynn Anderson’s Tiger Lily, Tiger Lily’s people and the pirates are separated by their worldviews, due to the pirates’ love for murder and revenge and the Wind People’s aversion to violence. In my own storyworld, Ilmarien, there was a huge divide between the three first elven brothers because one was extremely devoted to Elu (who is God in my world), one was agnostic, and the oldest bound himself to Versu (who acts as Satan in my world). The results were catastrophic, but they helped to cause tensions between my elven characters. How can you use opposing worldviews to enhance the history of your world?

History isn’t for everybody. But when you take the time to examine Earth’s past and how we have changed with the times, you’ll find plenty of ways to build up your world’s history and make it stand out.

I hope this helps illustrate ways you can dig deeper into writing your storyworld’s history. Comment below what you think! Do you mirror historical events in your writing?

About the Author

​Cate VanNostrand is a college student and freelance editor living in the South with her three siblings, her amazing parents, and her imaginary pet phoenix Lasair. Cate’s life’s goal is to honor God with her writing, wherever He leads her. She can often be found scribbling down words in a notebook, or frantically typing them into coherent form on her laptop. When she’s not writing, she’s probably singing to rock music, pretending she can play the piano, and binge-reading YA novels like there’s no tomorrow. Find out all about her and her latest work at the Southern Story Scribbler.

3 thoughts on “Worldbuilding Lessons from a History Major – Guest Post by Cate VanNostrand

  1. Amazing post, Cate!!! So much great information and tips here!! Reading through a second time has already got me thinking about adding legends in my own storyworld. ;)

  2. This was a great article, Cate!! Since finding my love for history a couple of years ago, I’ve noticed how much it’s helped me as a worldbuilder because there are so many moments in history we can draw upon for inspiration or ideas! (I also loved all the historical nuggets in here!! It got my history buff side quiet pleased!)

    Thanks for having Cate on here, R.M. Archer!!

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