Why ALL Writers Should Read More History

You may have heard that George R. R. Martin lifted huge chunks of the plot of Game of Thrones from actual events in British history. That alone should tell you that there’s value to poking around in history even if the story you’re writing is not in a “historical” genre.

Still, I want to look at this idea from two different angles. As writers, it’s easy for us to assume that Martin simply pulled some cool events from history, swapped out the names, and peppered in dragons and magic for genre flavor. Poof, there’s a story!

Truth be told, that’s a great way to get started, and there’s no need to worry about your story turning out “predictable” or “unoriginal” just because you’re basing it on true events. During the rewrite process, you’ll have to change so many details that the end result will still be uniquely yours.

Again, just look at Game of Thrones. If you try to read that story as a direct, one-to-one allegory for British history, it quickly falls apart, in much the same way that actual “period pieces” tend to buckle under the same test. Real life is not a story, so the process of making it into a story involves hundreds of little decisions that give you the chance to add your own flavor.

So, let’s call that Option A: Starting with History.

Personally, I’m way more interested in Option B, which I call Filling with History. Here’s what I mean:

If you’re a highly conceptual thinker like me, your story ideas probably come to you as huge, philosophical, wobbly things that take several paragraphs to explain. That’s a fine place to start, but writers like us have a responsibility to translate these ideas into relatable human stories. After all, our big ideas aren’t going to do any good if they never travel any further than our own heads!

This act of translation is hard work, and often it’s not obvious to us which relatable human emotions and experiences will serve our ideas. That’s exactly when we should turn to Option B and Fill with History.

Here, let me give you an example:

Let’s say you’re working on a far-future science fiction story where an intergalactic empire is being decimated by a newfound plague. Perhaps you want to make a statement about how large, sophisticated systems can still fail because of human error.

Great!

Now, as you craft this story, you need to figure out who will be the protagonist, who will be the antagonist, and who will be the side characters who reveal different parts of the protagonist.

And, most importantly, you need to make sure they all behave in realistic, believable ways so that the audience stays with you and pays attention.

Hang on though…how are you going to realistically predict an event like that? Odds are, you have never lived in an intergalactic empire, much less lived through a deadly, civilization-breaking plague.

You haven’t…but the people who lived through the Spanish flu practically did.

And if you dig into the research around that event, you’ll find examples of real people reacting to a catastrophic plague in very human ways.

You’ll find government officials covering up the spread of the disease to make sure it wouldn’t hurt the country’s wartime morale.

You’ll find city officials doing the same thing to protect the pride of their cities.

You’ll find determined medical professionals charging across the country to help because only they can see the full scope of the threat.

You’ll find average citizens becoming paranoid as their neighbors die by the dozens and the newspapers refuse to say why.

You’ll find infected soldiers on the front writing letters full of doomed optimism before the disease wipes out entire platoons.

And as you let these details sink into your subconscious, they’ll mash together and reform into characters, plot points, and emotional beats that make your far-future story feel as real as our own present.

(Or, for that matter, as surreal as our present.)

So whether you plan to Start with History or Fill with History, go read more history.