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Worlds Apart May 2007

May 2007 Issue

Artistic Traditions


The creative spirit of the human species can be traced back more than 30,000 years to an era when our ancestors inhabited caves and drew, painted and engraved brilliant works of art on their walls. No one is sure why they did it. Was it to exert a magical control over the animals they hunted? Was it to worship those animals? We have no way of knowing for certain, but it could also be that those cave decorations were done simply because the people enjoyed doing them. They enjoyed the creative process and appreciated its results. But wehatever the truth is, the fact remains that all human societies possess an artistic tradition that finds expression through painting, sculpture, literature, dance or music - to name but a few.


As writers of historical fiction, it is our task to build for our readers a picture of the world that existed at the time and in the place our story is set. The world must be authentic, consistent and realistic if it is to provide a useful backdrop for our characters and plot, and a well-built world can add immeasurably to a reader’s enjoyment of your work. As we have seen over previous months, there are many features of society and culture that can be employed to build the world you need, and artistic tradition should not be overlooked.


At this point I need to make something abundantly clear. I am not suggesting that there is a need to analyze or explain people’s beliefs about what constitutes art (unless, of course, it’s germane to your story). What I am suggesting, however, is that by reference to the arts, you can provide a fuller understanding of the world you’re building. Think of questions such as:

        How do the people decorate their structures?

        Do they adorn them outside as well as inside?

        What are the principal forms of artistic expression?

        What were the popular subjects?

        Can specific painters, musicians or other artists be identified and mentioned by name?

        What is the place of artists in society?


Obviously, you don’t have to answer all of them, but by referring to such features you can add a touch of realism and authenticity to the world you are building. Don’t forget that your aim is to create an accurate representation of the historical world in which your story is set. In doing so, you provide your characters with a social and cultural context that can explain their behavior and illustrate their beliefs and attitudes. Take the following example.


The house was large and richly decorated. Floral mosaics adorned the floors and the walls were painted with scenes depicting landscapes in which young men and women were engaged in sporting activities, dancing or the playing of musical instruments. In the main entrance hall stood four large bronze statues of the gods of war, the afterlife, agriculture and water. As each member of the family entered the house they bowed before each statue in turn and asked a blessing.


Through this brief description if a house, a great deal is shown about the society in which the inhabitants lived. We can see the following:

        Houses were single-family dwellings

        The family was prosperous  

        Art can be for decoration alone  

        Art serves a religious purpose

        Artistic pastimes such as music and dance were desirable

        It was an agricultural society

        They believed in life after death

        They had knowledge of metalworking, including alloys

        War must have been fairly common

        It was a polytheistic society in which religion played a prominent role


All these items provide a framework that allows your readers to visualize the world you are building and begin to form a conception of it. As your story progresses, further elaborations and references to other social and cultural elements will complete the picture. You don’t have to use artistic traditions as a vehicle for your world building, but it’s a good one to remember if the opportunity presents itself because so much can be shown. Artistic expression is fundamental in all societies and always has been. Like religious and philosophic traditions, it is central to human existence.


You may be asking why so much emphasis is being placed on this world building notion, and this is the answer I would offer. Most people who read and enjoy historical fiction do so, not surprisingly, because of an interest in history. They are interested in the lives people led in times past and want to know how events and circumstances shaped and influenced day to day existence. They are, in fact, looking for the very world building detail we have been talking about in these monthly columns for the past two years. They want to learn.


Readers whose preferences lie elsewhere are not likely to pick up a work of historical fiction and wade through all the historical detail and world building descriptions if they have no interest in them. We can’t write for everyone, but if we have an interest in history and fiction, we can share our fascination with those who enjoy such reading. That sharing is more than rewarding. 

Write on,