Friday, January 24, 2014

Übermädchen: Worldbuilding

Europe 1748-1766
(source)

Throwing out a whole month of work is hard. Thankfully, I didn't have to.

As I wrote on Tuesday, I moved my WIP Ubermadchen from the 1840s to, probably, the 1760s or 1770s. I haven't decided yet and I'm not going to rush into a decision, because I'm trying my best to extract all the data I can from my previous dead-end.

A hypothesis that's emerged from that dead-end is that when you're researching for a historical fiction novel, you have to do a lot of research just to see what you have to work with. Only then can you make an informed decision on exactly where and when to place your story.

I haven't accumulated enough research yet. I don't know who the big players are, which regions of Europe were more or less liberal, what span of years would let me maximize relevant references--because I don't know exactly which events I want to reference. Right now, I'm looking at the pattern of history on a macro scale, just perusing, see what I can fiddle with.

I've never done this before. Literally all of my other works were set independent from real, legit historical events, whether because they were in the far future, an amorphous contemporary setting, or in another universe.

So I'm documenting my process here as a reference and as a way to think through what I should do.

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With Ubermadchen version 1.0, I researched from the French Revolution (1789) to the revolutions of 1848. Now, I'm researching the span from 1740 (the beginning of the War of Austrian Succession, and when both Frederick the Great and Maria Theresa came into power) to the French Revolution (which is still 1789).

I spent an hour or so (not all at once) yesterday looking up political maps of Europe for every decade in my research window. Since I intend the Ubermadchen to travel around in this story, it is imperative that I get a knowledge of the geography, what barriers they'll run into, etc. Once I get into the finer work, I'll need to get really specific.

An excellent site that I found yesterday: Flow of History, written/produced by history teacher Chris Butler. I read all the modules in Unit Fifteen: The Age of Enlightenment.

I've a weakness for pretty graphs/flowcharts:
The Flow of Enlightenment Ideas
Chris Butler
(
source)

Going forward, I plan to consult a few more general European history sources before moving into country-specific histories. Over Winter Break I held a library day in which I read the chapters in about three or four Travellers' History of [Country] books dealing with Napoleon and the restoration. Some day, or perhaps spread out over a few days, I'll have to go back and do the same for my new timespan.

Furthermore, I need to read biographies (or, at a minimum, the Wikipedia articles) of important people in the time period. The devil's in the details, as they say, and as I was mind-barraging on the stuff about this story that makes me want to write it, I ended up with a lot of scenes in which the girls meet historical figures.

These historical figures might drive the story later, favoring the 1770s rather than the 1760s. Eventually, I anticipate that the question is going to boil down to American Revolution or not? I don't have any clue what the answer to that would be, seeing as, like I said, I still need to do research.

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But worldbuilding is more than just research:

"facts are not everything; at least half the game is knowing how to handle the facts!"
-Razumikhin, Crime and Punishment, Part II Chapter 4, p.135 in my edition

Sidenote: Razumikhin joins Horatio, John Watson, Patroclus, Hermione Granger, Edilio Escobar, and Annabeth Chase as the reasonable, decent, dependable foil who becomes my favorite character.

Of course the research is only a means to an end, which is in itself a means to another end. By which I mean research leads to a convincing world, and that world in its turn helps the story to live and provide enjoyment to the reader.

I mentioned at the beginning of the post that I didn't have to throw out everything. That was because, while the research I did on the early 19th century won't be super-useful, I also worked on setting up a magic system and several secret societies that I can import to the version 2.0 story.

(I could probably get a whole series of posts out of discussing the construction of magic systems appropriate to the story at hand, and I'm sure that abler and wiser writers than I have done so. Let's leave that discussion for another time.)

Was there actually a secret group known as the Society of Prometheus operating out of England? Actually...there probably was, since Prometheus is a boss name. But I don't think there was one quite like the one I'm envisioning, and it's plausible enough (I mean, secret societies are everywhere) so I'm not sweating it.

Because the important thing about the Society of Prometheus isn't whether it existed or not IRL. It's how this Society I've invented is affects the Ubermadchens' world, and therefore their paths--by teaching magic to those with talent regardless of their blood, by creating a cult around their ikon the Torch, by influencing the House of Commons.

As Hilari Bell notes, worldbuilding is only important if the cool details you make up matter to the story.

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In sum:

  • Accumulate facts as raw materials.
  • Shape those materials with an eye to the story.


Good night.

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