Story Bite 17: World Building and History (Today)

For this Story Bite in a time of global social isolation, I’m going to delve into one of my favorite parts of writing: research that helps a writer to understand a world. This post will also connect to the incredible historical situation we all find ourselves in today…but more on that in a bit. (By the way, keep in mind that all of the below is useful for fantasy and sci-fi as well. But stick with the concept of history for now, and certainly at the end. You’ll see why.)

The fundamentals of research allow you, the writer, to know your time and place—not just what people ate, and wore, and how they traveled (and if they traveled), but what issues were facing people’s lives. Some important questions to ask about another time or place as a writer—so you can recreate it—might be: What was life like? What did people care about? What mattered most?

Here’s our photo, some detail about an important historical site in Edinburgh, Scotland, that shares a bit about how people thought and what mattered in 1886…and in 2007:

About Well Court, Edinburgh. Photo: Diane Magras

Here’s the Part One of our Story Bite:

Write a series of questions that you would ask someone from the past—or from a fantasy or sci-fi world— to get to the bottom of what life was like for them. Would it be a medieval person from the time of knights and castles? Someone who lived in 1886 as Well Court was being built? A world where faeries and goblins lived alongside humans?

Here are some questions I might ask:

  • What was normal for people to eat? What was special? Where and how did they get their food?
  • What did people do for medicine? Did they do anything special to keep healthy? What was considered “healthy?”
  • What did kids do during an average day? If they could do anything they wanted, what would they do?
  • What were some of the crises that their families dealt with? How did their family, community, or world deal with regional, national, or global challenges?
  • What did people worry about? What made people scared?

Go ahead and use these questions if you like or come up with your own.

Do you have your list now? Fantastic.

Here’s Part Two:

Answer your questions yourself: about your world right now.

You are living in a historic time right now. With the coronavirus pandemic, everyone’s world across the world is being disrupted. Recording what’s going on around you is important. It provides what’s called a primary source document, which shows to people in the future what the world was like now according to people living in our world and time. These are crucial in understanding events and lives of the past, but many of the past leave gaps: Few primary source documents that were written by children exist.

Your voice matters. Imagine what your documents would be like for people to read a hundred years from now. This is your chance to tell part of a big historical story.

Part Three (optional):

If you were disappointed to end with current history and really want to write about the past or an invited world, please go right ahead! This is world building, a crucial part of writing any story, and you’re just creating your primary source document for your fiction world. Have a bit of fun with it and think about what kind of character would be filling this out. You can tell a lot about a character by their answers…just as someone can tell a lot about you by yours above! But pay a lot of attention to the final question. What made people worried? And maybe add this one: How would your characters react to a world like ours?

Further Directions:

I always invite young writers to share their Story Bites with me; I love to see what you come up with. For this one, with your permission and a guardian’s permission, I’ll keep a record of what you send on my website, linked to this post. As I wrote above, your voice matters. I want to keep a record of what kids are thinking right now.

If you’d like to share your Story Bite, please submit it through your teacher (I know a lot of you are working with Google Classroom!) or through a guardian and include: your first name, grade, school’s name (or “homeschooled”), town, and state.

Teachers: if your make story bites part of a lesson, please let me know how it went. I hope this is helpful.



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