History and Worldbuilding

My critique partners and I were chatting it up last night and the topic of writing historicals and research came up. They asked me how long I researched before I felt ready to write and I told them not much. I just jumped into the story and researched as I went along. Of course, I wasn’t going to set the stories in China at first.

I suddenly had flashbacks — five years of library visits, trolling Amazon, a gazillion internet searches. I have books on horses of the world, on walled cities in China, on the Tang dynasty, the Song Dynasty. Hours and hours on the Chinese History forum. Wow, now that I’m looking at my shelf, I have books on Chinese weapons, the Art of War and other military texts, Chinese landmarks. And I consider myself a “light” researcher. Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story, I say. (I stole that from my mentor teacher, who always told me “Don’t let the truth get in the way of good teaching” when it came to science.)

Darn, it’s been a long ride. And it keeps going. I’m starting to research Taoism and demonology for my next project. No wonder historical authors want to stick to the same period for a while.

No matter how much you research an actual time, you still worldbuild around it. Or at least I do. Historians do it too. It’s the biased worldview that you start creating based on what you know. I have a loose construct of the regions of the Tang Dynasty mapped out in my head and the political structure. At some point, I have to start filling in blanks and making extrapolations of what kind of situation that would create.

Soon, you find something cool happening. You find that the history matches up with your worldbuilding as you continue to dig. There’s a certain way that empires rise and fall, I suppose. It’s all a feedback loop and, sooner or later, the stuff you’re making up isn’t so far from what could or did happen.

I’m still dreading the day someone smacks me down for gross historical inaccuracies. That’s okay. They would have had to read as much as I have to do it. Anybody that geeky deserves to wield the historical smackdown stick.


  1. Victoria Dixon
    Dec 31, 2009 @ 08:44:29

    Yeah, I really do let the details drown out the acorns sometimes – let alone the forest! Good post. Happy New Year!

  2. Dara
    Dec 31, 2009 @ 09:35:45

    Oh the research process…how I love it yet loathe at the same time 😛

    I’ve found lots of info for my time–the only thing is, my library recently stopped their free interlibrary loan service and the books are out of print and go for like $200 on Amazon 😛


    The historical inaccuracy thing is something I fear too, but then I remember that this is a historical fantasy I’m writing, so it doesn’t have to be 100%–although I’d like to try and get as close to that as possible 🙂

  3. Jeannie Lin
    Jan 04, 2010 @ 20:04:35

    Victoria – I go the opposite way. I’m so afraid of bogging down the story with details that I’m always being told I need to put more background in. 🙂

    Dara – I’m so sorry about the library service. I found some great resources at my library, but I haven’t been back to one since moving to another state. Have fun with the historical fantasy. I think it’s important to feel authentic rather than just include historically accurate details. Hence the worldbuilding part of the game. Your story sounds fascinating and seems like it would be a lot of fun to research.