History is Unusual



Years ago, I was fortunate enough to attend a talk given by the late Majel Roddenberry, the widow of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry. In her presentation, she said something that stuck with me to this day. Even though the TV series and movies in the Star Trek franchise featured some outlandish and bizarre aliens, Gene had one rule in costuming. The aliens must always have the eyes of a human, so the viewers could relate to them.

I don’t write historical romance. My favored genres are science fiction, fantasy and paranormal. However my degree is in history with a minor in cultural anthropology and my education has been a huge asset in the world and culture building that that is necessary in speculative fiction. History is the human touchstone in my writing that allows the reader to relate to my alien or fantastical characters and their worlds.

As a field of study, history is unusual. It isn’t a science, though historians use methodology that is similar to the scientific method. Historians utilize psychology, archeology, fine arts and cartography as well as many other academic disciplines to develop and support a theory. A historian can study a culture from the top down, focusing on law, politics and rulers. The historian can also focus on social history, the study of the common populace and how they affect those at the top. They can focus on history from a feminist perspective, or even by examining land use or sexual practices. The tools and approaches to the field are nearly limitless.

When I begin a new world such as the Coalition universe in the Uncommon Whore/Belle Starr series, I generally begin with the people. This is an odd way of world building; some writers begin with maps and cities. I begin with characters and observe their physical traits and cultural traditions. With Helios and Griffin in ‘An Uncommon Whore,’ I developed the men and their society with a poem by Archilochus running through my mind:

Some Saian mountaineer
Struts today with my shield.
I threw it down by a bush and ran
When the fighting got hot.
Life seemed somehow more precious.
It was a beautiful shield.
I know where I can buy another
Exactly like it, just as round.

The relevance of this poem relates to the Spartan culture of ancient Greece. To the Spartans, Archilochus’ abandonment of his shield was a badge of cowardice. From the time they were boys, Spartans were trained by their mothers to come home from battle carrying their shield, or carried on their shield. Because of this poem, Archilochus was banned from ever entering Sparta. The first time I heard a translation of this poem, the wry humor and practicality of it struck me. Archilochus made quite an impact on his world with these few lines.

While the culture of the Astrum isn’t strictly Spartan in nature, I certainly used Greece as an inspiration for the city’s mythology and origins. Helios was once a priest in the Temple of the Sun. Both Helios and Griffin served in the military, and as the Spartans did, chose their lovers from within the ranks of the military, only to set them aside when they came to the age where they were expected to marry. Their culture also placed great importance on valor in war. If you’ve read the books, you understand how Helios’ fall from priest/prince/warrior to slave and whore must have shamed him to his depths. Yet Helios learns that submitting…and surviving isn’t the shame his people believe it to be. In time, his lover Griffin learns that same lesson. Because of Helios and Griffin, an entire culture will deviate from the traditions of millennia. The Astrum will become more flexible in their attitude, and a bit more sneaky in times of war.

I’ve used history as inspiration in other ways. In Blacque/Bleu, a vampire and a werewolf fall in love. During the course of the story, common myths about vampires are explained.  Bleu’s granddaughter explains that vampires allegedly have no reflection because in old legends, they were without souls. Thus, they didn’t show up in mirrors or photographs. In Bad Angels, I used nineteenth century maps of Edinburgh’s Old Town to create a hidden portal to the land of Fae. And in the Black Planet books, the bleak, dystopian version of San Francisco was directly inspired by Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City.

While a reader may not know they are reading a story that was rooted in history, there is a sense of familiarity that pulls them in and eases the transition to an alien world. There are subtle cues that speak of the humanity of all alien cultures I create. The twin Somian species is rooted in Native American mythology and the Valorans…well…when you read about the Valorans, you’ll see a tiny nod to Gene Roddenberry.

Perhaps someday I’ll bit the bullet and write a historical romance, but for now, I’m happy taking history and twisting it just a bit, coming up with something uniquely my own. But then history tells us there is nothing quite so unusual as the truth.

Award winning author Belinda McBride was born in Inglewood, California, but grew up far to the north in the shadow of Mt. Shasta.

She has a degree in history and cultural anthropology, but in 2006 made the life-changing decision to quit her job as a public health paraprofessional and stay at home fulltime to care for her severely disabled, autistic niece. This difficult decision gave Belinda the gift of time, which allowed her to return to writing fiction, a dream she’d abandoned years before.

Belinda’s hobbies include soap making, collecting gemstones, travel and martial arts. She has two daughters, six Siberian Huskies and a menagerie of wild birds that visit the feeders in the front yard.

As an author, Belinda loves crossing genres, kicking taboos to the curb and pulling from world mythology and folklore for inspiration. She is committed to taking her readers on an emotional journey and never forgets that at the end of the day, she’s writing about love.

To learn more about Belinda and her writing, visit her website or her blog.

For my giveaway, I’ll donate An Uncommon Whore 1 and 2 (.PDF format) or a swag item if the winner already has those books. 

The BONUS BUMPER PRIZE QUESTION (don’t answer this yet – write them down and I’ll ask you to email them in on Christmas Eve.)

21. What German town is famous for its Christmas Market and gingerbread?

9 Responses

  1. Two entries today, each as different as can be. Thank you for a interesting insight into writing speculative fiction and your use of history.

  2. I really identified with this post – I too have a degree in history and taught it for ten years – teaching is a good way to find out just how very little you know about any period too! Like you I use history as a means to build worlds, including one based on ancient Greece though the poems that inspire me tend to be the naughty bits of the Greek Anthology!

  3. Oh, intriguing – I didn’t know that about your works! 🙂

  4. Research is always exciting and can lead to so many other interests. While studying history at UEA I became interested in the history of churches, which led to an interest in tombs & memorials and then attempting to translate the Latin inscriptions.

    Very interesting post. Thank you.

  5. Thanks guys!

    Jessie, I started with Classical Studies and by the time I graduated I specialized in local site and archival research. 🙂
    Seraphina, you are so right, the more I learn, the less I know! LOL!

  6. Oooh, how deliciously wonderful. I’m currently staggering my way through a classics minor and wish I had enough linguistic ability to do the full degree. Greek just defeats me though. I’m hooting my way through priapean epigrams!
    I’ll be sure to track down these books.

  7. How interesting about the Star Trek thing. I’ve always complained that the aliens always looked two bipedal-human-model-based and now I understand why. Thank you!

  8. That’s really interesting information about the design decisions for Star Trek. It all makes sense now. And I just thought they were being lazy!!

    LOVE the Archilochus poem too. Very fertile ground for inspiration.

  9. I don’t know why I adore history so. I know others’ reasons that i don’t share, like all the men and women I know who are into the clothes or the royalty.. maybe you have hit on the reason here.. that it is such a mix of disciplines that I never have to feel stuck with just one. Thanks for that.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: