East of Constantinople, West of Shanghai

19 Ways to Become the MacGyver of History

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Just the second experiment and already Portent has thrown me a curve ball.
“The MacGyver of History”?
But it’s OK, no really, I can do it, I can do it… MacGyver was a great series and I loved it as a kid, so I owe it to MacGyver.


What is the MacGyver of History?
To me, he (or indeed, she) is one that can take bits and pieces of history, a paper clip and his trusted Swiss Army knife, and build a radio. Or a rocket.
In other words, we are talking about a writer of historical fiction and historical fantasy. Someone that is good enough to take history, and work in the interstices to create stories that work inside of history while being outside of it.

So, now that I have a rationale, I only need 19 Ways to Become the MacGyver of History.
Nineteen. Ouch!

  1. Read history – this one is really simple, but it is essential. MacGyver was so good at building stuff because he knew science. You need to know your resources to use them in the best possible way.
  2. Actively look for the interstices – what’s been left blank? What points are debated? In which circumstances sources and historians do not agree? That’s a good place to start building a scene in your story.
  3. Read biographies – biographies (and autobiographies in particular) are personal points of view on history and are a huge source of anecdotal detail. Read them, they’ll give you ideas.
  4. Think visual – not the album by the Kinks, but the best way to add depth and detail: look for maps, photographs, old newsreels, use visual details to create the illusion that you are talking history and not making things up (but you are).
  5. Remember that reality always trumps imagination – especially when historical facts are concerned, what really happened is often a lot crazier than what you came up with in your outline. I mean, a Dutch WW” minesweeper crossing the Pacific and dodging the Japanese by pretending to be an island? C’mon…
  6. But also remember that the assage of time can be mindbogglingly dull – like, decades and decades during which NOTHING happened. Or did it? Look in depth in those years during which nothing happened, you might find some lost treasure.
  7. Consider the fiction of the time – learning how the imagination of the people of a certain time worked might give you ideas about your story, or ideas about your characters.
  8. Consider the non-fiction of the time – Herodotus is your friend, as is Xenophon… but maybe you’d rather read Dr Dee or a good science essay by John Galton. These work as both reference and as a way into the world view of the time.
  9. Look for times of turmoil – lots of stuff happening, poorly documented or still being debated
  10. Always consider the lower classes – for most of the human history, a small percentage of privileged individuals were center stage. But the rude mechanicals were there, and they might come handy.
  11. Steal from contemporary fiction – think in terms of high concept… “like 007 Thunderball, but in pre-Revolutionary Versailles”, “Ulysses is the original Indiana Jones”…
  12. Read good historical fiction authors – both straight historical fiction and genre historical fiction: historical mysteries, fantasy, the works.
  13. Steal from history – this one is sneaky. Take one historical incident and adapt it to another time. Like, a Roman galley trying to sneak out of the Eastern Mediterranean by pretending to be an island. Perfect!
  14. Don’t overdo the name-dropping – there’s a lot of historical fiction about this guy that happens to be in, say, 19th century, and he meets EVERYBODY, from Dickens to Jack the Ripper… and I know, Harry Flashman did just like that, but let’s face it, there was only oner George MacDonald Fraser.
  15. Lie with a smile on your lips – you are going to invent whole chunks of “history”, and you better do it with class. The idea is to keep the real detail in full view while you shuffle in a few lies.
  16. Remember the readers are here both for the history and the fiction, so get both right and make them merge seamlessly.
  17. When writing fantasy, make sure to give the magic a period flavor – Egyptian spells are different from Regency spells, and the spellcaster’s attitude will be different. Monsters, critters and all the rest of the shebang must also adapt to the times…
  18. … unless of course you are playing on anachronism. But be careful, with anachronism.
  19. If the premise sounds like it’s too crazy, probably that’s the story that needs to be written.

Whew! Made it!
Any other suggestions, stuff I missed, criticism, examples, questions, money offers?
The comments are open!

Author: Davide Mana

Paleontologist. By day, researcher, teacher and ecological statistics guru. By night, pulp fantasy author-publisher, translator and blogger. In the spare time, Orientalist Anonymous, guerilla cook.

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