Jan 28 2009 2:21pm

Real world reading for fantasy writers

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.

Jason Henninger
1. jasonhenninger
Thanks for posting all these recommendations. I see a trip to the library in my near future.
Kate Nepveu
2. katenepveu
Two nonfiction books I read that all through, I was thinking, "if I were a fiction writer, I would be all over this . . . "

The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language, John McWhorter. How language changes and why (booklog).

Engineering in the Ancient World, J.G. Landels. If you want your low-tech worlds to nevertheless have realistic tech
3. affreca
Thank you for the geology/geography recommendations. Geologic implausibility is one of the fastest ways for me to lose my suspension of disbelief. Let alone how terrain is ignored/simplified in the travel parts of books.

As a reader, I'm going to hunt down some of those nonEuropean references.
Kage Baker
4. kagebaker
WOW! How did I miss "Women's Work: the First 20,000 Years"? And Amazon has it in stock for $14.99 (cackles and rubs hands together).
5. CarlosSkullsplitter
Barber's Prehistoric Textiles is even better. If you like this sort of book, this is the sort of book you will like, love, settle down, and write three more books with.

Farmers of Forty Centuries is available as a free PDF through Google Books. This and are amazing resources for books now in the public domain, or as part of a greater outreach program. The Field Museum of Chicago has put many of its publications onto Archive. For that matter, the American Museum of Natural History has made its publications available online too (twelve hits for Kroeber).
6. CarlosSkullsplitter
Clarification: the American Museum of Natural History site is at .
Emily Cartier
7. Torrilin
Women's Work is fairly good on weaving. Barber is clearly pretty skilled at weaving, and is good at showing how there are many ways to go about making cloth. She's clearly not a handspinner, and that leads her into being awfully dogmatic about how one spins. Reading Abby or Ed Franquemont's work is a nice counterbalance to that. There's more than one way to have a productive handspinning culture.
Ken Walton
8. carandol
Of course, all these things are equally useful for role-playing games, where the details of what your player characters are carrying around, and whether the culture they're living in has a pub in which they can meet, or some place more interesting, can add much to the atmosphere, and get players really into character.

I still have that copy of Enquire Within Upon Everything (though the covers have now fallen off entirely), and recently found an 1880s copy on Ebay for a friend for Christmas (though you have to check dates, because it was still being published into the early 1990s!).
A Davour
9. wokka
Wow, long list. I like it! This is also interesting for readers. You get to it backwards: reading fantasy you get interested in worlds and how they work, and then in how it has worked in other real world cultures.

Now, where is the similar list for different kinds of science fiction? If you write (or read) postapocalyptic fiction you will want The World Without Us for example. Help me come up with more!
Jo Walton
10. bluejo
Wokka: SF is harder, because when you want to discover the details of the technologies of the past, the books are there, but the technologies of the future are... more challenging.
A Davour
11. wokka
Oh, but I was thinking of worldbuilding, not technologies per se. There must be must-reads for planets, and for exobiology, and applicable things about biology in our world's past, and so on. And of course I'm just throwing out this as a suggestion, this might not be your thing to write about -- but perhaps your commenters might have something to add?
Bruce Cohen
12. SpeakerToManagers
Wokka: For exobiology, be sure to read Jack Cohen & Ian Stewart's Evolving the Alien: The Science of Extraterrestrial Life. Cohen has consulted on alien-building with several SF writers, and has written (again, with Stewart) a couple of SF novels notable for their aliens.

For world-building in the most literal sense, read Terraforming: Engineering Planetary Environments, by Martyn J. Fogg. It's out of print (I've seen in offered on the web for US $800 a copy!), but my library has a copy, and so might yours. It's not a popular science book, it's a set of engineering proposals with calculations to back them. But the proposals are even more mind-blowing for having been worked out in practical detail.

For not-so-literal world building, building a background for your future human society, read How to Build a Future by John Barnes. It's in his collection Apostrophes and Apocalypses.

There's also a "Science Fiction Writing Series" (edited by Ben Bova, I think). There are books on aliens and alien societies, world-building, space travel, and time travel. I haven't read them, but given Bova's involvment, and Stanley Schmidt's on the alien book, they're certainly worth checking out.
Jo Walton
13. bluejo
Wokka, and Speaker to Managers: The trouble with this is that you're not for the most part recommending science, but "science fiction fact" about how to write science fiction. Three of the four sources mentioned are SF writers. If you read those things you're doing the equivalent of getting your fantasy details from Hollywood or other fantasy, you're not doing the equivalent of reading history to get them. I've seen this discussion before, and the next thing is recommending GURPS Space.

Having said that, I own Terraforming and I generally respect Jack Cohen's work a great deal -- I like his The Privileged Ape. I bet his alien book is great. What it isn't is a book from outside the genre that's going to give you usefully new thoughts.
14. CarlosSkullsplitter
Setting aside the big journal names, Icarus, the international journal of Solar System studies, is available through an Elsevier / Science Direct package at many university libraries. And you can always browse through the contents and check Google Scholar to see if there are any copies of an article available more publicly.

It seems a little odd to me to try to write science fiction without at least looking into scientific research a little.
15. vcmw
I don't myself have the background to follow much of it (high school Physics and undergrad math take you only so far), but I imagine that folks with more background looking to do hard SF probably spend a bit of time poking around

For medical science, PubMed?
If you happen to live somewhere that has a college nearby, then you've got access to magazines like Cell and all that.

I think Guns, Germs, and Steel probably falls into the useful big-picture category, both for SF and fantasy people.

Books on place names and linguistics also strike me as potentially helpful for fantasy writers especially - so that the created place names and people names and so forth hang together nicely?
16. carmen sandiego
The Worldwide History of Dress by Patricia Rieff Anawalt
What it says on the tin. The history of non western clothing. Traces cultural influences, also discusses the effect of terrain and climate.

Women at Work in Medieval Europe
by Madeleine Pelner Cosman
Explores the many occupations women engaged in at this time everything from troubadour to baker to criminal. The book mostly covers England, though.
Sam Kelly
17. Eithin
From my bookshelf: Structures and The New Science of Strong Materials by JE Gordon, and Metals in the Service of Man. Engineering, materials science, the development & culture of technology. De Re Metallica.

GM Trevelyan, English Social History. There are probably better, more modern works, but this one is pretty good.

Janet Gleeson's The Arcanum and The Moneymaker - wonderful work teasing apart the development and revolutionary implications of a few things we take completely for granted. Inventions, new/reverse-engineered technologies, and change.

Liza Picard's books on what life was like in London - Elizabeth's London, Restoration London, Dr. Johnson's London, and Victorian London.
Liza .
18. aedifica
I'm coming late to the party, but I'll add to the worldbuilding discussion: the newer edition of Janet Kagan's Hellspark has an afterword with a list of books she recommended for that. Her descriptions of them sounded good, and I don't think any of them were "how to build a world," but rather they seemed to be pieces of information you'd want to take into account.
19. Alison Murray Whittington
I am adding my own thanks for this list, and for the resources offered in the comments as well.

I am an artist - I make maps of imaginary places - and I am working to develop my maps into stories themselves; many of them are medieval-fantasy-based so I think I will find many of these resources very, very useful.

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