Sometimes we feel like our plot is in motion but the reasons driving the action feel purely random. It’s a worldbuilding failure, but an easy fix. In writing historical fiction, a sense of randomness can be a factor, despite having accounts of real events to go by. This is where research becomes critical, because those who win the wars write the history, and they write it to show themselves in the best light. Consider Richard III:
Richard’s history was written by the victors. He was the last Plantagenet King of England, and he was defeated at the Battle of Bosworth by the Henry Tudor. The Tudor dynasty lasted for a long time, including Henry VII, Henry VIII, (Bloody) Mary, and Elizabeth I. Consequently, he was mythologized as a tyrant, particularly by Shakespeare, writing during Elizabeth’s reign, two generations later.
Yet with uncovering of his bones in a parking lot, there is a growing evidence that the Richard III Society may not be entirely wrong: his story may have been a bit less damning, and certainly he was no worse than those who followed him. He was a man of his era, as much as Henry Tudor was.
That all-too-human tendency to cover up our failures and atrocities in the light of our righteous victory over a declared evil introduces contradictions and ambiguities into official accounts of events. That makes the work of creating an accurate portrait of large-scale events difficult.
Looking backward from our viewpoint, and with our values, it’s hard to figure out how things really happened in a particular era, without going well beyond the general, official history offered up by the fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia, and doing sincere, dedicated research. It’s easy to say “this happened this way and that’s that.” (It’s repetitious, too.)
But there will be accounts somewhere, and if they exist you will find them on the internet. Wikipedia is the starting point. Search for accounts that disagree with accepted dogma, and keep rephrasing your questions until you hit on the right one. Bookmark or keep a list in a word document of links directing you to the sites you have found, even if they had little to offer–you might need them later.
Remember, if you’re drawing on real-life history you must dig deep–don’t just skim the surface, reading the official recounting of events as written by the victors. The internet is amazing. Historians are continually building our database of information and new discoveries regarding how ordinary people and marginalized groups truly lived. Many resources exist that will give a rounded account of life in the Middle Ages both in Western Europe and in countries around the world.
If you are relying on actual history to provide a framework for your world-building, you should reach beyond the official history of Europe. Asian history is rich and well documented, as is Egyptian. Of course the old adage that history is written by the victors holds true, as I said before, so let’s consider the story of Hatshepsut:
She was described by early Egyptologists as a minor player, only having served as a co-regent from approximately 1479 to 1458 BC, during years seven to twenty-one of the reign previously identified as that of Thutmose III. However, recent evidence shows that in reality, Hatshepsut reigned as pharaoh for more than twenty years.
Her successors, for whatever reason, attempted to rewrite history, erasing her name from monuments. Yet Hatshepsut was one of the most prolific builders in the ancient world, commissioning hundreds of construction projects throughout both Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt. Her buildings were considered far grander than those of any of her Middle Kingdom predecessors’ works, and were certainly more numerous.
Despite the long period of prosperity during her rule and the amazing constructs she built of stone, Hatshepsut’s influence and accomplishments were marginalized and credit for her work was given to others. Early Egyptologists superimposed their own ideas and values on their interpretations of history.
They failed to understand the ritual religious symbolism of statues an art depicting her and didn’t take into account the fact that many women and goddesses portrayed in ancient Egyptian art often lack delineation of breasts, and that the physical aspect of the gender of pharaohs was never stressed in the art. This is in part due to the fact that in ancient Egyptian religious art, subjects were romanticized to fit the ideal of the time, and viewing it from an Edwardian mindset, early scholars believed her merely an overly ambitious “King’s Great Wife” or queen consort. Recent discoveries, however, are righting that wrong, and she is now considered one of the greatest pharaohs of Egyptian history.
Nowadays, it may be easier to find good, unbiased information on ancient Egypt than it is to get an impartial history of post WWII America.
Reality aside, what if your story revolves around a conflict of some sort in your fictional world?
A major worldbuilding trap that is easy to fall into is not clarifying why an event of apocalyptic proportions is taking place at this moment in time, rather than, say thirty years ago.
So in our second draft, one thing we want to strengthen is our sense of history. WHY is Evil Badguy making his move now? What stopped him from putting his nefarious plan into motion two years ago, and conversely, why can’t he wait until next week? Some critical factor must have prevented him from making his move, some obstacle which no longer holds him in check.
What you have to do is identify what it was that kept your villain in check, and make sure it is somehow introduced into the story. This can be done in the same unobtrusive way you slip in other background. In the process you will discover factors that kept other political actors in your society in check as well. It’s all about checks and balances. What are the unwritten rules that everyone knows and which constrain their actions?
The main difference between writing historical fiction and speculative fiction is that the writer of speculative fiction can make the history fit the tale. The writer of historical fiction does not have that latitude.