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Using History in Speculative Fiction: We Know Stuff Happens, but How?
by Paula Fleming

Return to Speculative Fiction · Print/Mobile-Friendly Version

Our story takes place in a world. That world is either changing, or it isn't changing. This sounds simple. Don't worry: it gets more interesting! Also, understanding the changing or static nature of our world is important to developing a plot with significance and focus. Let's take a look at some examples:

A Changing World

  • Global warming is inflicting all manner of socioeconomic havoc.

  • For the first time in 100 years, democratic elections are being held.

  • The neighborhood is changing, with many Puerto Ricans and Somalis moving in.

  • The youngest child is filling out college applications; the parents will soon face an "empty nest."

A Static World

  • The world rests on the back of a turtle.

  • Mars is a colony of Earth, and the people there pay the taxes we tell them to pay.

  • This town has a Catholic church and a Lutheran church.

  • Our family lives on the south side of the tracks; the men all work in the mines, and the women raise the kids and take in washing.

As is clear from these examples, an unchanging world can exist within a changing one, and vice versa. Many, many stories have been written about two or more characters who live in interlapping worlds, one changing and one stable. Perhaps one generation lives in a feudal village, while the younger generation has traveled with an army and seen crossbows slay knights. Alternatively, perhaps society at large is rigidly homophobic, punishing discovered GLBTers with public hangings, while within one home, parents learn to accept a gay child.

Setting and Plot

When we consider whether our story's world is changing or static, we are dealing with setting. Setting should not be confused with plot, which is the events that happen in our story. Events can intersect with our world in one of the following basic ways:

A Changing World

  • The event is a part of the world's change. Setting: A new, deadly sexually transmitted disease is altering sexual behavior and stimulating public discussion of sex. Plot: Protagonist's partner catches the STD, and the two of them become public spokespersons for the ill.

  • The event runs counter to the world's change. Setting: A new mill is being built on the river running through town. Plot: The protagonist writes a poem idealizing Nature, and the poem becomes wildly popular.

A Static World

  • The event changes everything. Setting: A clan believes that disease is caused by impure thoughts and treats the sick by attaching leeches to their heads and cauterizing their extremities. Plot: The protagonist notices that illness tends to spread first among people who know each other and postulates that invisible, evil spirits cause illness; the clan becomes obsessed with boiling water and washing everything to get rid of the spirits.

  • The event reinforces the status quo. Setting: A village believes that bad weather is caused by witchcraft. Plot: Summer brings dust bowl conditions, and the villagers burn several people alive before the rains return.

So now we have ourselves a fine mess. The different characters in our story may live in somewhat different worlds, of varying size and stability, and then stuff happens to them that may interact more or less with their worlds . . . How do we keep our focus on telling a good story? I suspect that many writers who have trouble bringing their stories to an end, because they keep branching out in ten directions, have trouble getting a grip on this interaction of their plots with changing or static worlds.


A historiographical model may help us out. Historiography is the way historians decide why things happen. Different historians have adopted different models for why things happen, and they argue the pros and cons of their favored models at length.

One such model is that used by Fernand Braudel in his seminal work, The Mediterranean. Of the Annales school of historiography, Braudel believed that time is not one stream but three: geologic time, social time, and individual time. It's at convergences of geologic, social, and individual cycles that interesting stuff happens.

So how does this help us? Most characters, except for the most long-lived entities, will perceive geologic time as static. Stories set in geologic time are, from the point of view of most characters, set in a static world. The geology and climate of a world set up its possibilities, but they don't generally change within one's lifetime. Note that science fiction plays with this: terraforming, global warming, and an asteroid's impact are all ways in which geology/climate move from geologic time into our more immediate timestreams -- social or individual time.

The passage of social time can be perceived over a generation. To the extent that a story deals with a "generation gap," the characters are living in social time. Events such as the deterioration of feudal authority in favor of the crown, the tendency for grown but unmarried children to leave for the cities instead of staying at home, and a growing acceptance of Martian currency on Earth would all happen in social time. In the 20th-century developed world, social time cycles sped up dramatically, so that individuals could place themselves as leading or trailing broader socioeconomic movements.

Which brings us to individual time. Our characters, if they have human lifespans, readily perceive individual time. One nation declares war on another. A talented writer decides to take a year off from school and hitchhike. A shaman chooses a boy child born on a blue moon for his successor. Events -- our plot -- typically happen in individual time.

Most story worlds are created in geologic or social time. Most plot takes place in individual time. When these cycles intersect, we have a significant story on our hands. So, from each character's point of view:

  • Are geologic and climactic conditions in flux or static?

  • Are social, economic, and cultural conditions changing or staying the same from generation to generation?

  • Are their lives either pleasantly settled or "in a rut," or are the characters on a trajectory toward a different occupation, relationships, or lifestyle?

Think about a significant book or short story and answer these three questions. Is the setting in geologic, social, or individual time? Does the protagonist perceive this setting as changing or as static? And does the plot happen in geologic, social, or individual time?

For example, let's consider Maureen F. McHugh's Mission Child (first chapter), about a girl in a kind of Laplanderish culture to which modern technology is being introduced. I see the setting as being in geologic time: the character roams the planet, which has its own rules for what humans can eat and how they can make a living. I see the plot as occurring in social time: the story develops over a decade or so, and thanks to the introduction of new technologies, social change is happening at a rapid clip. It is these social-economic-cultural changes that form the movement of the novel, rather than actions of the protagonist.

Now think about one or more of your own stories, and ask the same questions.

Okay, now that we've identified the time streams of our setting and our plot, let's go back to the interaction of events with our world. If our world is changing, are the events part of that change, or do they run counter to it? If our world is static, do the events disrupt the status quo, or do they reinforce it?

If the answers to any of these questions are muddy, then it's possible that we need to do more work with our worldbuilding. Without a clear understanding of our setting, our plots can lack significance or focus.

Find Out More...

Blending Fiction and History - Paula Fleming

Contemporary Fantasy: Setting the Fantastic in the Everyday World - Paula Fleming

Historical Research for Fiction Writers by Catherine Lundoff

Using Current Events in Speculative Fiction - Paula Fleming

Recommended Reading on Historiography:

What Is History? The World of Historiography
Cat's post at the top of the page is easy to read and lays out the essence of Braudel's historiography.

Historiography (Wikipedia)

Copyright © 2002 Paula Fleming
This article may not be reprinted without the author's written permission.

Paula L. Fleming's science fiction and fantasy have appeared in a variety of publications, including gothic.net; Tales of the Unanticipated #20, #22, and #24; Meisha Merlin's Such a Pretty Face anthology; and Lone Wolf Publishing's Extremes 3: Terror on the High Seas anthology. By day, she's a human resources generalist at the Wedge Community Co-op. To help her, she has three big dogs, two cats, and one husband. Visit her home page at http://home.comcast.net/~paulafleming/index.html or her blog at http://paulaleafleming.blogspot.com/.


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