Sometimes there’s a little too much “story” in history. At least the way it’s usually taught; event A leading to war B leading to nations with borders C, forever and ever, amen.
As with anything else related to humans, this is way too simple. Yes, to a certain extent a general history book has to simplify things, so we can hopefully all draw on a common knowledge of historical events. (Supposedly. These past few decades, schools have been falling down on that.) But writing history as if this was the inevitable course of events puts our past at an artificial remove. It obscures a crucial truth: our ancestors were making choices, as we do today, based on the best information they had available – as we do today. Hence the Battle of New Orleans, fought and won by Andrew Jackson after a peace treaty had already been signed. Word just hadn’t gotten there yet.
On top of concealing the fact that things could have gone differently, telling history as a straight line of events leaves out some of the most oddly interesting bits, because they didn’t make an obvious difference to Major Historical Events. Those odd bits, events, and people off the beaten track, are prime fodder for worldbuilding. I’ll pull out three examples: the Incan wheel, the Spanish hunt for Lewis and Clark, and the lost samurai mercenaries of Southeast Asia.
The Incas had the concept of the wheel, as seen in children’s toys, centuries before the conquistadors showed up. Yet so far as we know it was never used for anything but toys. Why, no one’s sure. Mountainous terrain? No proper harness for llamas and alpacas to pull with their full strength? Or just the horribly oppressive Incan bureaucracy? When you consider their bureaucratic oversight included mummified bodies on the councils… well, deadweight has a whole new meaning. Sobering proof that you don’t need the invention of paper to have the government wreck your life.
So what if you had a culture like the Incas, but had burned all the bureaucrats? (Or at least the mummies.) What would that look like?
Then there’s the hostile meeting that didn’t happen between the Mexican Army and the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Bear in mind that at the turn of the 19th century, nobody Western knew where the Missouri River went. The government of New Spain was worried our intrepid American explorers would find it drained areas rich with gold and silver mines in their territory, which would have been a financial disaster. So starting in 1804 the governor of New Mexico was ordered to seek out, find, and imprison or turn away the Lewis and Clark Expedition. They made four attempts over the next two years, only to be stymied by geography and their own cultural assumptions. First, the headwaters of the Missouri don’t go anywhere near New Mexico, and they ended up searching hundreds of miles south of where Lewis and Clark actually were. Second… those leading New Spain assumed this was an expedition in the Spanish style. As in huge, hundreds if not thousands of people, traveling slow and easy to find. The reality that the expedition was moving light and fast with only about 40 people never occurred to them. Leading to all too many RL scenarios along these lines.
New Mexican Army: Where are the Lewis and Clark Expedition?!?
Local Indians: Who?
This has plenty of worldbuilding and setting potential as-is – imagine being one of those soldiers! But you also have to wonder what happened, or didn’t happen, because those troops were out beating the bushes instead of available for deployment.
Then there’s the Japanese mercenaries of Southeast Asia. China employed Japanese pirates as mercenaries from at least 1300 AD on, and no few daimyo in the Sengoku Era claimed these wakō as their ancestors. China, Korea, the Philippines, Siam – even Manila (and from there Mexico City!) saw Japanese mercenaries up through the late 1600s. Note that after 1635 anyone of Japanese descent outside the county couldn’t go back without being executed by the shogun’s order. Warriors exiled from their homeland, only their skill with a sword to fall back on – any adventure story could use this.
When you build a world, look for the complicated bits of history. It’s worth it!