This is the first of two blog posts concerning writing mysteries.
In the course of world building, I tend to do a lot (and I mean a LOT) of historical research. I am that nerd in the library who sits in a corner, furiously writing away in his notebook while surrounded by impenetrable walls of books covering the ancient and often times mythical.
Surrounded by my fortress of knowledge bound in sheets of trees sacrificed and bound by glue, I constantly choose the parts of history necessary and relevant to my stories, and sometimes will read the majority of a book to gain a ‘big-picture’ perspective of events surrounding a war, change of civilization or more. The key to history is not taking an event and isolating it to fir your perspective or argument, but to understand the organic flow of people, geography and events surrounding a historical occurrence.
History is not and has never been about “Point A, B and C.”
History is a flower.
It’s about “Point A” as the seed from which “B” and “C” grow organically, and “B” is the flower that just happens to bloom first.
Your world will not have any real-world logic to it if the history of that world does not grow organically.
I have seen too many fantasy worlds in which history is treated as an isolated, disjointed set of events that remain completely unrelated to each other. This is why Tolkien’s works are so popular: The histories of Middle Earth are organic, and one event never remains isolated or disconnected from the rest of the world. His histories are organic.
History is organic.
The best histories are those with a good deal of mystery. Why?
Mystery is in your DNA
Mystery is what drives us as a people. It is what fuels our love of science, literature, art and existence as humans. Have you read the new book by a certain author? Do you want to? What about that new TV series that’s coming out next year? That movie everyone is talking about?
What fuels your desire to see or read these new unknowns?
It’s the mystery of what’s inside those treasure chests. Your desire to see and hear new things is no different than your ancestor’s desires to see and hear new things in the lands to which they were traveling, or quests on which they embarked. The face of mystery has changed over the milnennia, but mystery still exists.
We cover and coat it with knowledge and rationality, but we still love mystery. We are hard-wired to love it.
If you read up on Epigenetics (mitotically or meiotically heritable changes in gene expression or cellular phenotype, caused by mechanisms other than changes in the underlying DNA sequence), you’ll find that your ancestor’s experiences still affect you today in some form or fashion. Your decisions and experiences actually alter your DNA sequence. They change your DNA.
In essence, you have the same love of mystery as your ancestors.
The balance of historical research to create mystery in your history
It’s important to have a balance between skepticism and belief when dealing with tales of mythical worlds and belief systems. The more boring works on this planet were written by those who had no belief in anything, and whose worldview was so impenetrably dull and explainable that mystery had long been extinct to them by the time they set out to write anything.
Most of these mythical places and events have some bit of historical truth to them. Even if they are entirely fabricated, they still inspired real-world events and decisions of real people.
Whether or not a cross actually appeared in the sky, what Constantine saw as a miracle led him to a massive and history-changing military victory.
Whether or not Joan of Arc was seeing visions, she still led one of the most successful military campaigns in history.
Whether or not El Dorado existed at some point, it still drove the conquistadors in a mad, blood-thirsty dash across the Americas.
Whether or not the Roswell incident was extraterrestrial in origin, it still led to the writing of hundreds of books and dozens of movies, and now effects the popular culture, having a massive influence over media in the 1990’s, so much so that President Clinton inquired into the alien origins of Roswell.
The point is that sometimes the event or experience itself can cause massive ramifications in local or global politics. The Salem trials were not focused as much on the supernatural as much as the Puritan’s irrational fear of the supernatural and those trials are now synonymous with the concept of mass hysteria and paranoia.
Egyptians had intense religious beliefs in their gods and the supernatural, and this fueled their dominance of the ancient world.
When researching these events, it’s my strong recommendation that you don’t make it your goal to explain the mystery away. Mystery is what has driven humanity in many forms, and some of these events may actually be real, though in a way we may not yet perceive.
The Griffin, the Protoceratops and the Wardrobe
The Griffin was a popular mythological creature in civilizations since ancient Babylonian times. However, recent paleontological evidence suggests that, with the proliferation of Protoceratops fossils in the area, it is very possible that people digging for wells and other agricultural or infrastructural needs may have come across these fossils. This does not negate all of the artwork and stories of these creatures, but provides a possible explanation for why the ideas were so prevalent in the ancient world.
The Mysterious ‘Never’ and the importance of your universal constants in written histories
In literature, it’s rarely believed when a universal negative is stated. This is because universal negatives are nearly impossible to prove in the real world on a large scale. We cannot scientifically say that no quasars are happy puppydogs because we have not observed every quasar in the universe at the same time. All logic points to the strong probability that they are not, but I think you see my point.
Attempting to paint absolutes in your world must be few and far between. Absolutes must be the framework in which all of your organic content rests, not vice versa. I call these the “Mysterious ‘Never.'”
In Star Trek, no one can go faster than Warp 10. Every series and movie organically works within this universal absolute. If you do cross the Warp 10 barrier, a horrible episode is written where you turn into a salamander.
In Star Wars, no one can flirt with the Dark Side of the Force for a long period of time without being twisted and darkened, and eventually turned by it.
The list goes on and on. Each major franchise works organically with the absolute rules established in their universes.
That said, even the absolutes can be broken. Always give your absolutes a way to be broken, but always add the dire consequences if those absolutes are disturbed.
The world was once considered to be flat and with edges by some cultures. Those cultures broke the perceived absolutes to their gain. Other cultures were able to break an atom, with disastrous and world-changing effects. Some absolutes, when broken, can have wondrous or disastrous consequences. This is what makes the absolutes so important to any written history.
Even these absolutes are mysteries themselves. Why can’t anyone cross the Warp 10 barrier normally? Why can’t someone have both the light and dark side of the force working with them simultaneously?
The more mysterious the absolutes, the better. The Mysterious ‘Never’ can exist quietly in your universe as something never seen or touched, but ever-present.
Cause and Effect, Effect and Cause
If one society has broken their ‘Never’ they can immediately become exponentially more terrifying or wonderful than they had ever been before. Conflicts can rest on one side or another breaking a universal absolute.
If Native Americans had horses and guns and a functioning army similar to the conquistadors who invaded them, the world would be a very different place. If the ‘never’ of transportation by mechanical objects had never been broken, mass transit would not exist, and the World Wars would have been significantly less bloody. No airplanes, no bombings.
History organically works with itself, and we sometimes miss the forest for the trees. If you were to write a story in which World War 2 was waged without machines, it would be a significantly longer and bloodier conflict. There would be no bombs, but if both sides used boats and horseback, yet somehow still managed to harness the power of the atom, the Hiroshima bombing would have been a suicide run, Germany would have probably had a significant advantage on land, and the United States may never have entered the war because of the length of time it took to cross the Atlantic and Pacific.
The Mystery of it All
So we have our absolutes, and our organic history that functions in these absolutes. How do we reveal these without coldly listing out the dos and don’ts of the world?
There’s a song by a poetic indie artist named Sarah Masen. She sings,
“Mystery’s walking on my head again, in a pattern figure eight.
Round a turn cross a path again and again and again.
Save communion for the holidays. And keep perception at a safe arms length.
Does hallelujah wear the same old face?”
I always took this to mean that all of our lives are an unfolding mystery and we are in constant discovery, and though we try to relegate our lives into patterns and containers recognizable, that there’s always the greater mystery we cannot perceive, that we were made to search for and understand.
Your own life’s mysteries are incredibly applicable to your writing, and your love and wonder of mystery are the reason you are driven to find new things.
Use that love of mystery in your writing. Writing a solid history is not about listing events in a cold, distant way, but finding a way to communicate that love of mystery unfolding to others. Think about how a life event unfolded in your past, and try to pattern that sequence of discovery into your stories. Writing from first-person perspective can me the most difficult thing sometimes, because readers want to journey with the person, not be told everything by them.
Let’s write that journey.
Let’s write in tune with that mystery that walks on our heads in it’s unending pattern figure-eight.
Let’s write some mysteries.