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