Unveiling the Tapestry

Real-World History’s Impact on Fantasy Worldbuilding

From SRP Author Taylen Carver:

I’m a history nut. I don’t know if every fantasy author is also a history nut, but a love of history must surely become a facet of fantasy authors’ careers the longer they write fantasy. We all pull from history for our worldbuilding, after all.

History keeps surprising me. There are so many cool stories, stuff you couldn’t possibly make up. In fact, some of the strangest stories in history you can’t use for your fiction because readers would scream about it being unrealistic!

One of the strangest events in history that sounds almost too bizarre to be true is the Tanganyika Laughter Epidemic of 1962. It occurred in the small village of Kashasha in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) and involved a mysterious outbreak of contagious laughter that affected hundreds of people.

Three schoolgirls at a boarding school in Kashasha started laughing uncontrollably for no apparent reason. The laughter soon spread to other students, eventually infecting the entire school. The laughter was so intense and contagious that it led to the closure of the school.

It didn’t stop there. It spread to neighboring villages, infecting more and more people as it went.

The epidemic lasted for several months and affected thousands of people across the region. Some individuals experienced laughter fits lasting for hours or even days, leading to exhaustion, fainting, and in extreme cases, respiratory problems and heart attacks. Medical experts were baffled by the phenomenon, unable to pinpoint a physical cause for the laughter outbreak.

But if I wrote a story like that in a fantasy novel, even properly adapted for the setting and characters, it would sound…well, stupid. Mass hysterical laughter? C’mon!

History is rich with stories like these. There are events that are spoken about, have movie made of them, and become part of the zeitgeist, that inspire fantasy authors to tell similar tales. There are cultures and eras that are so distinctive that even heavily disguised, we can still see their roots showing.

Of course the one everyone knows is the sprawling landscapes of Middle-earth. J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings borrowed heavily from Anglo-Saxon culture, the pre-war sensibilities of rural England, and a big dose of Norse mythology. The industrialization of Isengard reflects Tolkien’s concerns about the encroachment of modernity upon the natural world.

Similarly, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series draws heavily from real-world historical events, such as the War of the Roses and the fall of the Roman Empire, to craft a richly layered narrative of political intrigue and dynastic struggle. The complex web of alliances and betrayals in Westeros reflects the tumultuous history of medieval Europe, while the Wall and its defenders evoke the stoic resilience of historical figures like the Roman legions who defended Hadrian’s Wall.

In the realm of urban fantasy, authors like Susanna Clarke and Neil Gaiman seamlessly blend historical elements with fantastical elements to create immersive worlds that blur the lines between reality and myth. Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell transports readers to an alternate Regency-era England where magic is a tangible force, while Gaiman’s Neverwhere ventures into the hidden depths of London’s urban landscape, revealing a world of magic and mystery lurking beneath the surface of reality.

Medieval Europe has been recreated in fantasy too many times to count. Some would say too many times, period. But the medieval period in history spans more than ten centuries and all of Europe and into the Middle East (the Crusades)…there are still a lot of nuances and pockets of culture yet to explore.

There are also fantasies that borrow from modern history, including the books that come later in Brandon Sanderson’s series, and Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse, with its intriguing roots in Imperial Russian history.

I have a number of historical eras that I find fascinating, and countries and areas in the world that draw my attention for their unqiue history and people.

Most of the Imperial Roman era is deeply interesting—especially once you get away from Rome itself. Britain, North Africa, even Egypt, were imprinted by the Roman Empire, and how they emerge from the crumbling ruins of Rome are all very interesting stories.

The beginnings of the Eastern Roman Empire, based in Constantinople, are just as interesting.

I also like Welsh history. It is not the story of Britain—not altogether. Wales carved its own identity when it shrugged off the last of the Roman traces, nearly a century before Britain became England and the Anglo-Saxons came to power. Even then, Wales resisted the Anglo-Saxons and remains a country with its own identity even today.

Yes, there are some amazing stories there.

Recently, I started digging into Mycenean history. That culture was amazing! They were building multi-level, straight-walled palaces when the rest of the world was still living in round daub huts. I was drawn to this culture and era because of my research for The Divine and Deadly, which came out on Thursday…but I will continue to read and research because what I found was so damn interesting.

And I’ve barely touched on the history of the world. There’s so much more to find.

What fantasies have you read that were shaped into intriguing storyworlds by the history that inspired them? Share your recommendations in the comments section, because everyone needs more books.

Taylen Carver

SRP Fantasy Author

Taylen Carver generally writes contemporary fantasy, but has been known to dabble in epic fantasy from time to time.
Browse Taylen’s books here.