Stray Thoughts: Even a Caveman Can Do It

Displayed at the side of a register screen, publicly yet not ostentatiously, lies a “gas store X” notepad marked Loss Prevention Department.

I will refrain from naming the store this notepad was in, but I can assure you it did not sell gas.

Me: Hmm, even in this modern world, I sense a scalp has been taken.

If you’re worried about setting a story in a different place or time, do your research. No, more than that. Poke around for the latest historical or archaeological or scientific articles even vaguely relating to the setting you’re trying to evoke; you never know what little fact will make it all tie together and breathe.

Then take a deep breath, and remember this: human nature, and human behavior, really hasn’t changed that much, from the Paleolithic onward. And barring massive reengineering of the human genome into a species we wouldn’t even recognize as us, it’s not likely to. We are the last surviving hominids among the Great Apes, and we have certain basic wants, needs, and drives. Food, clothing, shelter. Other people to interact with, for the sake of our sanity. Going after things that give us warm and pleasant feelings; family, parties, a good story, a glorious achievement nobody else has won. Avoiding things that give us bad feelings, whether that be carefully dicing our way through imperial politics to avoid either looking bad before the emperor or looking so good that the current Evil Advisor decides to frame you for treason, or sneaking out of the cave before Thog from the next hill over can start that mammoth-in-the-tar-pits story again. (No one escapes it. No one.)

People. Are. People.

Yes, culture matters. Quite a bit. Culture determines things like, what’s your usual accepted social space, what language you speak, what constitutes high crimes and misdemeanors and what just gets you looked at funny when you do it in the streets and frighten the horses. And if you don’t know the culture, inside and out, you can miss very important things. For example, there’s a bit in the first ep of Kingdom (Korean historical zombie drama) where Prince Lee Chang encounters palace guards inside at night and asks them what’s wrong. They tell him nothing’s wrong. And he glances down to their feet.

They’re wearing boots. Inside the royal palace. While he’s in socks.

Meaning the guards are expecting trouble, and lying to the crown prince about it, and he knows they’re lying, and they know he knows they’re lying… and there’s nothing he can do about it. One small scene, that drives home how powerless the prince really is, and hints at how bad things are going to get.

The details about boots are culture. But the essence is human. You don’t have to be born in that century to grasp the core of what’s happening, and what’s going to happen. A person who should be in a position of power, who should be able to trust those around him to have his best interests in mind, is trapped in a very bad situation. Sooner or later he’s going to have to do something to upset the status quo, or die.

So if anyone tells you that you can’t write X because you’re not (fill in whatever), feel free to tell them where to go. You’re a human being. You can make reasonable guesses about the motives of other human beings, and write from there. And the evidence we have from folklore and history passed down through the ages is that people have always done that.

So get your facts together, then gather up your courage and write. A caveman could do it! And probably did….

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6 thoughts on “Stray Thoughts: Even a Caveman Can Do It

  1. My own advice for the beginner is to read a lot of primary source and other history, from all over history. It not only gives you a feel for history, it helps you notice that your culture might do *this* different.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Tech was my first historical interest. I’m particularly into military tech, so military history and political history pretty much followed along.

        Religious history was a interest later in life, but one I came to value.

        Liked by 2 people

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