Yesterday, on the Deerskin thread, Mary Frances passed on Lois Bujold’s recommendation of Women’s Work: The First 20,000 Years by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. I immediately rushed to the library to get it, and so far it seems really good. The thing with books like this is that the details of how people lived in the past, and particularly the details of how they actually did everyday things, are absolutely invaluable for building fantasy worlds. You don’t want a fantasy world to be exactly like history, of course, but much better that than it should be derived from Hollywood and from other fantasy books. History is real and solid, and if you know it you can make changes from a point of knowledge, not ignorance. The best thing is always the primary sources, the things that were written at the time. They can give you an invaluable window into the worldview of different cultures but they don’t often describe daily life. And a lot of history books are very specific accounts of what happened in sequence, when what I’m always looking for are histories of society and technology that give me the detail I need to shape worlds.
For medieval Europe—your standard fantasy world—I usually suggest that people start with Frances and Joseph Gies’s Life in a Medieval Castle and go on to the Gies’s other work. They write well and interestingly, and are good at taking specific examples and talking about both how they are typical and how they are different. I especially like the Medieval Village one, but they’re all good on technology and hand-work and how things fit together. They also have good suggestions for further reading.
The primary source for the fourteenth century in France, Froissart’s Chronicles, is online.
Dorothy Hartley wrote a pile of good books on medieval life, including Medieval Costume and How to Recreate It, as well as similar books on food and country life. Dover also publish a lot of good older work on history of technology and so on.
For Ancient Greece, I thoroughly recommend James Davidson’s entertaining Courtesans and Fishcakes. This covers daily life in Plato’s Athens. (Interestingly, Amazon have 13 books with “fishcakes” in their title, and 114 with “courtesans.” Who would have thought? Aren’t people weird?) You also can’t go wrong with Donald Engels’ Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army. It’s an odd book written by a Victorian logistics officer, and while it’s ostensibly about Alexander’s army it applies to any pre-modern army that’s carrying stuff around on pre-modern roads with packhorses. It’s useful to know how hard it is to move an army around.
For knowing how economies work, you cannot do better than Jane Jacobs’ The Economy of Cities. Jacobs isn’t accepted as a mainstream economist, but it doesn’t matter for the purposes of reading her for fantasy worlds. This book describes a stone age city, medieval Venice, and how a modern city works. She doesn’t just talk about cities but about trade, and how cities are part of the rest of the economy. It’s also fluently written and fascinating.
I also like the Everyday Life In... books. They vary a lot, because they’re written by different people, and some of them are old and less culturally sensitive than they should be, but I always find them a good starting point if I’m researching another culture. I own tons of these. They are the one kind of book I actually collect as opposed to buying to read. If I see one of these I will just flat out buy it, whether I want it or not. I have ones I haven’t even opened, but I live in the knowledge that they’ll all be useful some time. I love them. They have great bibliographies. They also have illustrations.
Similarly, look at children’s books when you’re starting out. Children’s non-fiction almost always has illustrations, which can be very useful, and it’s usually easy to read and lets you know what it is that you want to know, so you can approach the adult books from a point of less ignorance. Also, children are assumed to be more interested in the practical details of life—I have no idea why.
Osprey Publications produce detailed military histories designed for obsessive wargamers. They’re often written by top military historians, and cover weapons, armour, tactics and strategy. You can usually find them in gaming shops. They’re great.
For later periods, you can often find texts online. The School of Recreation from 1596 and Enquire Within Upon Everything from the 1880s. We used to have a physical copy of that, which we used to call How to Murder Your Husband, because the section on poisoning was so... usefully complete. It really does contain everything, from suitable names for babies (invaluable), how to clean, cook, and cope with servants and even parlour games.
Yoon Ha Lee has been looking for good books on non-Western cultures, and recommends Kazuo Nishi and Kazuo Hozumi’s What is Japanese Architecture?: A survey of traditional Japanese architecture to people who want to make their fantasy cities different from medieval Europe, and think about why things are built the way they are. She also suggests Chinese Technology in the Seventeenth Century by Sung Ying-Hsing (trans. E-Tu Zen Sun and Shiou-Chuan Sun) which she said is made of awesome, F.H. King’s Farmers of Forty Centuries: Organic Farming in China, Korea, and Japan, Ivan Morris’s The World of the Shining Prince: Court Life in Ancient Japan, Erik Hildinger’s Warriors of the Steppe: A Military History of Central Asia, 500 B.C. to 1700 A.D., and Guido Majno, M.D.’s The Healing Hand: Man and Wound in the Ancient World, “because Egypt, China, India, and Arabia get their own chapters. Majno is particularly good at examining differences in medical paradigms and technologies, and how those intersect with culture.” Samurai Warfare and Samurai Invasion by Stephen Turnbull; “the first is sort of a survey while the second focuses specifically on the Imjin War (Japan’s invasions of Korea, 1592-1598). The first is better than the second, mainly because Turnbull is a lot more familiar with Japanese history than he is with Korean history. But still, given the paucity of English-language books on the Imjin War, it’s a nice thing to have available. And mostly I mention the Imjin War because it is thrilling and politicky and has cool naval battles and turtle-ships, so if a bunch of fantasy writers wanted to take this bit of history and run with it, I would be all for it!” Thanks, Yoon, those are great.
For the pre-European Americas, Charles C. Mann’s 1491 is brilliant—and if you want a really different fantasy world, you could do a lot worse.
Debra Doyle has compiled a list of useful resources on all this sort of thing for the writing workshop Viable Paradise. Check it out.
It isn’t history, but The Hidden Landscape by Richard Fortey is about why people use the building materials they do and how the underlying geology contributes to geography. (It’s just Britain, but it applies everywhere.) It’s also worth reading John McPhee and things like Hoskins Man Made the Land (now terribly dated) to consider the ways in which the landscape itself interacts with people and culture.
I want to add: don’t just read one thing. Read widely. Compare things across cultures where possible. Think about why things are the way they are, think about the way things fit together, think about economics and geography. Thinking about these things might seem like a lot of work, but it might also be how you get your best ideas. I usually find when I’m doing this that I have some very solid ideas about how the world is, things that can’t be changed. So the questions I ask are “OK, how did it get like that?” and “OK, what are the implications of that?” And it’s terribly useful when I want to have a character send a message or order an army to move if I know what the message-sending technology is, and how long it will take the army to get there.