Some epochs have always been popular as settings for novels or movies. Among these are ancient Rome, the Middle Ages, and World War II, which have the advantage of being well-known to the public, at least at a general level (often filled with inaccuracies and stereotypes, but that’s another matter).
Instead, other epochs present greater obstacles to work as a setting for stories, as they are rare in fiction. But there is another reason why the most difficult periods to set a story in: they require complex historical research. A very complex one.
The most difficult periods to set a story
I cannot speak in absolute terms because there are distant civilizations on which I do not feel qualified to express an opinion. On the other hand, writers tend to talk about what they know best, so it is unlikely that the first choice of a European would fall on Himalayan nomadic tribes unless they are specialists in the matter. Therefore, consider that the following ones are the most difficult periods to set a story in for someone who comes from a Western background.
I don’t think you need too many explanations for why prehistory is a challenging period. Imagine being the writer who has to engage in historical research for his/her novel: there are no written sources, and unless you are ready to delve into archaeology and anthropology and spend hours admiring different types of flaking, you’d better choose a different period. Additionally, there’s a linguistic difficulty since humans began to speak only when Homo Sapiens appeared (200,000 years ago). So, if you ever wanted to set your story among older hominids, you would have to forget about using dialogues.
However, there is one way not to completely discard prehistory as a setting. Prehistory means “before history,” that is, before written documents appeared (we must pay attention not to confuse prehistory with the Stone Age).
Some populations started using writing late, yet they are well-known to us thanks to archaeology and written sources from others. For example, the ancient Germans. At the time of the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest, Germans didn’t use writing and technically they lived in prehistory. Indeed, Germany went directly from prehistory to the Middle Ages when written documents began to spread. And a story set at the time of Arminius is definitely manageable.
Ancient Near Eastern civilizations
Here we don’t speak about Egyptian civilization because the « mysterious Egypt » actually is very well known, both on the historical and archaeological side. The Near East is also extensively studied, but it is more challenging to approach for writers. Again, to do research, it’s essential to know archaeology, which implies something more than randomly opening a specialized text and reading it. If it were that easy, there wouldn’t be so many supporters of the theory that aliens landed on the plains of Babylon with their UFO-shaped ziggurats.
The good news is that at least writing existed. Indeed, it was invented right here. However, we don’t always have direct sources. Their presence depends on the period, the population, and the subsequent events during which archives and libraries may have been destroyed, leaving us with only a few surviving fragments.
In Mesopotamia, various civilizations and very different peoples succeeded one another, making it extremely difficult to immerse oneself in their mentality. Even when there are texts that could assist you in this sense, a new, significant problem arises. Where to find translations? If you wanted to get an idea of Greek philosophy, you could simply walk into any bookstore and choose a volume of Plato or Aristotle, but it’s not that easy to have a collection of Babylonian laws at your disposal.
And since to be among the most difficult periods to set a story in, the era of Mesopotamian civilizations had to continually present new obstacles, how do you deal with German? Germans did extensive excavations in the Near East, and the interest has also extended to the language, so many texts are only available in German translation. For example, if you wanted to set a novel among the Hittites and read their original documents, you’d only have a Hittite-German dictionary at your disposal. You need an immense passion for this period to embark on such an endeavour!
Archaic Greece and Rome
Epochs without written records are the most complex to study, and utilizing archaeology is challenging. However, even the most well-documented periods do not make it easy for those who must create a coherent historical context for their story.
Let’s take the archaic period of ancient Greece and ancient Rome, for example. These civilizations are well-known in all aspects, and yet there are pitfalls here as well, because the images we have of these eras are classical Greece and imperial Rome. We tend to project customs, traditions, objects, and ideas from later centuries into the previous ones.
Consider the Roman Republic before the Punic Wars. Romans did not yet recline at banquets, they did not use the gladius, they did not carry the eagle with the golden standard into battle, SPQR was not inscribed anywhere, they did not eat leavened bread, they did not embellish squares and gardens with statues, they did not cover public buildings in marble, they did not construct with concrete, they did not use sundials and coins, and at one point, the commanding magistrates were not even consuls. Simply put, everything that distinguishes ancient Rome in our imagination did not yet exist.
It is not impossible to set a story in pre-classical Greece or the early Roman Republic, but writers likely end up inserting many aspects that only appear centuries later.
Early Middle Ages
Also known as the “Dark Ages” due to the scarcity of written sources. The barbarians who settled in the territories of the former Western Roman Empire did not write, and they do not help us understand them better.
Moreover, this is a period of deep transformations that cannot be reduced to simplistic definitions, such as barbarians annihilating classicism or, conversely, barbarians saving the world from the corrupted and hopeless empire (interpretation varies depending on the ideology of the writer). It is an era that has been one of the most manipulated ever by propaganda, as many European countries have identified these centuries as the starting point of their national history. One must be cautious when writing about the Early Middle Ages, and to do so, it wouldn’t hurt to have a degree in history.
What? Isn’t Nazism one of the most well-documented and extensively studied periods in the whole of human history? True, but the risk here is different: falling into clichés. This setting likely produces a story with familiar plots and events. How many times have we already seen France occupied by the Nazis and the conflicted relationship that arises between invaders and the local population? This doesn’t mean that beautiful stories can’t arise from such premises; yet, precisely because books like “Suite française” have already been written, the risk is to replicate well-worn patterns that don’t add anything to the plot. In fact, they end up damaging it.
If, on the other hand, you wanted to explore unknown paths and discuss, for example, the German Einsatzgruppen active in Eastern Europe and the events that led to the organization of the Jewish extermination, it would be difficult to be accurate due to the long research these topics require. Furthermore, this is extremely delicate terrain because there’s always the danger of empathizing too much with the perpetrators, attempting to rationalize what cannot be rationalized, or providing simplistic explanations for something even professional historians struggle with.
There aren’t so many good books about writing historical novels. Yet, “Medieval Underpants and Other Blunders: A Writer’s (& Editor’s) Guide to Keeping Historical Fiction Free of Common Anachronisms, Errors, & Myths” (2015) is very useful to understand the difficulties that writers face doing historical research. I highly recommend it – to have a glimpse in the writing process and have a laugh too.
What do you think? For you too these are the most challenging time periods to set a historical novel in?
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