Friday, October 1, 2010

History is Relevant

Why are clocks circular when we see time in a linear fashion (there was a beginning and there will be an end)? Why are circles 360 degrees? Why does February only have 28 days?

Maybe you've thought about these questions or maybe you haven't. I mean, really, why do you need to think about it? Clocks have always been circles and a circle is 360 degrees and February has always been the shortest month. But if we do think about why, and look to our past we can find that there are actual answers.

Clocks are circular because the Mesopotamians saw the passage of time as a cycle: winter, spring, summer, fall, winter, spring....(you get the idea, I'm sure).

Circles are 360 degrees because the Mesopotamians divided their cycle of time into 360 days. They just picked it, for no real reason, other than their best guess. The circle being 360 degrees is fundamental to our understanding of all geometry and figuring out the values of other shapes.

February being the shortest month takes a little more explanation. Julius Caesar liked the Egyptian calendar so he rearranged time - telling all the romans that their former calender system was no longer valid. In adopting the Egyptian calender, Caesar picked one of the nicer months of the year and named it after himself (July). (Talk about having power, right?) After his unfortunate end, his grand nephew Augustus took over. Augustus didn't want to have less then his great uncle so he picked another month with gorgeous weather to name after himself (August, obviously). The only problem? August was shorter than July. How did he solve the problem? Augustus stole the days from February. Seriously.

The decisions of these ancient civilizations have a profound impact on our society today. So much so that we don't even question any of it. Everything they did was relevant. I could go on and on and on about the sort of innovations ancient civilizations had and how much they changed the course of history. I won't bore you.

My point to this history lesson? When you are writing a novel, history is important.

Your History is shaping and influencing the novel you're working on.

Your characters act the way they do because of their history.

History also serves as the foundation for world-building. Whether you've fabricated your own world or are using an already established location, you need to know the little historical details. The more you know, the richer your setting will be. The more real your world will become.

You don't need to tell the readers why February is the shortest month or why clocks are circles but you do need to recognize that history shapes everything.

My advice? Don't overlook history, in any aspect of your novel.

As an aside, I want to thank all of you wonderful people who participated in my game yesterday! It was so much fun and I loved your contributions even more than I thought I would (meaning: they were more amazing than I thought they could be).


  1. Great post Melissa! World building to me is one of the hardest parts about writing the ms. You have to have just the right balance and knowing your history can only help that. Well Done!

  2. Well said and interesting. I knew why we had July and August, but I didn't know about the stealing of days from February. I learned something new :)

  3. Yeah...sigh. There are so many instances like those it's mind-boggling, right?

    So it's not hard to suspend reality when reading or writing a book as long as it makes some kind of sense! good post!

  4. very cool post. and very insightful, we do need to think about the history of the worlds we create! AND i didn't know that whole february thing either.

    but do you really think time is linear? i'm more of the opinion that it is it's own dimension and therefore infinite in nature- extending forever into the past and the future simultaneously- and therefore a circle is the perfect representation of time- in simplified form- because time isn't quantifiable in a spacial manifestation.

    but people debate that all the time, i guess. just surprised to hear you're a linear time kinda gal! :)

  5. Fantastic post! Huh. I didn't know any of that ;o) They stole from February. Fascinating!

    You're making me think in the morning... LOL Thanks ;o)

  6. The Romans also determined why railroads tracks in the US are 56.5". Paul Hartman goes into detail in his post "A Railroad Track is the Width of Two Horses". (Actually the initial expalnation I heard ears ago). Essentially it boils down to the fact that the original ruts in England were made by the Romans, who arrived in England in 54 BC and left about 400 AD. The width of their chariot would equal the width of two "standard" Roman horses.

  7. Awesome post, Melissa! It could be vital for your novel to pay attention to how history shaped the events. Thanks for the reminder!

  8. This is very true. If characters are to be like real people, they mustn't just do things, they must have reasons and motivations, and those things come from the past.

  9. Hey Melissa - I love this!! It's so true about world building. And thanks for the history lesson about July and August. Those guys were seiously "ego freaks". LOL

  10. Hmm...who knew you could steal a couple of days? Wish I could just borrow some. :)

  11. I LOVE little historical tidbits like this. What a great post, and you make a very excellent point! Had no idea about the clocks thing. Weird.

  12. Oooh, you've got me thinking about one of my WiPs--I need to focus more on the history of the world. Thanks for the advice!

  13. Wow! Great post!!!
    I've been trying to delve into the history of my main character, and her world (fantasy) more and more in the last few weeks. She's currently making her way through underground caverns beneath her home city . . . and finding a few pieces of history along the way. Of course, I don't want to over-explain the pieces of history, because that would be telling, but I've got some notes in a different file for my own "history."

    Thanks for a wonderful post, and great advice. I think I'm missing out because I didn't check your post yesterday . . . may have to do so a day late.

  14. Well said, Melissa! Thanks for giving us something to think about :)

  15. All of this is so interesting! Lots of stuff here I never knew. And what a neat way to relate the importance of history in our stories. For sure it's always there in the background somehow. Great post :-)

  16. Great post! This is SO true - history does shape everything, in fiction and in life. Thank you for this food for thought.

  17. When you asked the questions, I started thinking about it and wanted to know the answers. So thank the heavens you answered them :) Also I was soo interested. Poor February! ahhah. That is the funniest thing! Im kinda happy August has more days though.


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