Being a Better Writer: Ancient Jobs and Ancient Life

Welcome back readers.

Things feel a little subdued this morning. That’s because the writing world lost a legend this weekend. Eric Flint passed away on Sunday.

If you aren’t familiar with Eric Flint, he’s been around since … Well, from my perspective, forever. I was seeing books with his name on them when I was a child at the grocery story paperback section. He wrote a phenomenal amount of alternative history, to the point that at least in the circles I’ve hung out in, he was one of the two names that came up whenever anyone spoke about alternate history.

The writing community has grown a little smaller with this news. There is a GoFundMe raising funds for a memorial service.

What scattered new I have is practically unremarkable by comparison, so that’s all I think needs to be said for today’s news segment.

However, today’s topic? It was chosen as a sort of tribute to Eric Flint and his contributions to the literary world. A deviation from what was planned, but I think there’d be no better topic for today than to look at the genre that Flint loved to write and talk about it for a bit.

Well, one aspect of it, at least. We won’t be talking alternative history specifically, but we will be talking about a narrow slice of it. A slice that’s been sitting on Topic List #20 for some time now, waiting for its moment.

Today, we’re going to talk about ancient jobs and ancient life. Stick around, because it’s not what you think.

Okay, I can envision the confusion on a few faces right now. Who’d want to talk about that? And it certainly doesn’t sound like a writing topic, right? After all, if you’re writing Fantasy or Sci-Fi, why should you care about ancient jobs or what ancient life was like? After all, you’re writing SCI-FI, with spaceships and distant, far-off places. Why worry about ancient life on Earth?

Because it’s closer than you think.

All right, even I’ll admit that was a little cryptic. So let me rephrase: Because it’s not that distant. In fact, looking into the past can bring two powerful bits of knowledge into being with your work, future, fantasy, or not. First, looking into the past at what our world was can help you understand how swiftly labor and what that entails can change even in just a short span of time. Secondly, seeing how that changes, and how society shifts as a result? That’s inspirational, and something that can benefit your worldbuilding and brainstorming regardless of what setting, location, or time you’re writing about.

Those of you that are regulars will know that one of the oldest sayings I’ve drilled into minds here on the site is “Always do the research,” and no doubt a few of you are now nodding in anticipation of this being another one of those moments. And well … I’m not about to dissuade that.

But that isn’t the crux of today’s post. We will touch on it, yes, but I’m not just staying confined to that particular path today. Instead of just saying “Always do the research,” today what I’m pushing for is more … Let’s call it “associated exploration.”

Don’t get me wrong: If you’re writing a book that, for example, is a slice-of-life fantasy modeled after the period right after Rome fell, then you should definitely do some research into what sort of jobs and day-to-day life of that period, as well as politics and other associated material.

But what if you’re not that specific right now? What if you’re just thinking “I want to write about a bunch of colonists on a harsh, alien planet?” or “I’m just going to write a SoL standard fantasy? Why do I need to look at ancient jobs? Especially ones that are gone?”

Got a bit ahead of myself there, but for two reasons. The first is that understanding ancient life can make your work that much more realistic and gripping. It’s one thing to hand-wave what a character’s parent actually does for a living in your SoL YA novel (ever notice this common trope?), but when you actually know a little bit about what sort of jobs existed or exist in your setting, so you don’t have to say “merchant” and can actually give some detail and flesh things out? Not only does this make the setting far more real, but it allows for interplay and actual conversation between characters.

But there’s a second reason too, and we’re going to do a bit of a deep dive for a moment on this one: By seeing what jobs come and go, and how society is shaped by or shaped with the rise and fall of these positions, we can gain a greater understanding of the changes that the society we plan to write about can and will change.

See, it’s not enough to simply say “Hey, we don’t have video rental clerks anymore.” We could end it there, but that’s actually a pretty bland position to stop with.

Why don’t we have video rental clerks anymore? Well, because there are no video rental stores. At least, not on a large scale. But hang on a moment. Why is that? Have people stopped watching movies and television?

No … we’re still watching movies and television —though about half the hours per day that were watched by the Boomers and Gen-X. So … maybe. But people are still watching movies. But they’re getting that content that was once at the video store through internet streaming.

That’s a societal shift. Video rental clerks don’t exist anymore because society shifted. The march of technology, along with people choosing to engage in it for various reasons, rendered the job irrelavent?

Before streaming? It was a key job: Without video rental clerks, the booming video rental industry of the 80s and 90s couldn’t have come to pass. And because that industry existed, movies that were made for the small screen rather than the large, AKA straight-to-video, boomed as well, creating whole new markets and trends with movie production.

This is interesting and all, but the real point here is what looking at trends like this can mean for your writing. Yes, it’s valuable to know that there used to be accountants who sat in back offices in huge numbers with ledgers if you’re going to be writing about a big bank, or a large money-lending operation (think of Ebenezer Scrooge and the team of accountants he had working his office). Nowadays, that’s one person sitting in front of a computer. Knowing the why can vital to understanding how society has shifted, or better yet, shifts.

Why? Because we can use that knowledge—even as a light dusting—to fuel change and conflict in our own works! To make them feel real, like the world we inhabit. A place where the natural demands and requirements of society are fulfilled, and then those requirements shift and morph.

For example, before the reliable alarm clock, there was a job position called “knocker-upper” in many places. This was a job where an individual would show up in the early mornings and knock on people’s windows to wake them up. Human alarm clock. Sound bizarre? Well, it stuck around for a while, even in the 1970s in England.

Why? Because people couldn’t get reliable clocks—or they were pricey, as we’ve noted before on the site that an AM alarm clock in the 1930s could set you back almost a grand in today’s money. So it was cheaper to pay a person who was an early riser, or who maybe had an affordable clock for his job of using it, to come around and knock on windows!

How could you use this knowledge in your next book? Maybe a Sci-Fi wouldn’t have need of such things … until your colonists crash-land on an alien planet and the one watch becomes a valuable commodity for the colony’s schedule. Maybe they pass the watch to whoever has the job? Or maybe you’re writing a fantasy set in an early industrial revolution, and your protagonist is a street urchin who realizes that they can use the clock in the city center to run to nearby neighborhoods and provide the service … though this does mean they need to adjust their own sleep schedule.

Effectively, what I’m getting at here is that learning about these ancient jobs and ancient forms of life is a two-fold advantage to your writing. The first is the obvious conclusion of “What if I wrote that job into my setting?”

There exists shades of “always do the research” with this, but there’s also the aspect of making your world a living, breathing one. Towns in, for example, 3rd century Spain weren’t just farmers and dirt movers (while there were plenty, a quick glance at a historical paper on the subject—Auto-download PDF warning—says there was reluctance to adopt new technologies in the region) There were cheesemakers, or lamp-wick manufacturers, shepherds, potters, everything associated with a large textile industry (fullers, dyers, combers, weavers of various kinds …), cobblers …

You get the point. Even as far back as the third century, and further, there were a wide array of jobs and industry that made up people’s lives. And on a certain level, everyone understands this. People exist, people do things.

If we don’t let the people in our stories do things, we create a false shadow of existence. Don’t just say “Well, my character lives in the 5th century (be that the real 5th century or a fantastical equivalent) so they’re probably going to be a farmer, right?” Learn what the world was like back then, and look for jobs or careers that would lend themselves to the story you want to tell!

But learning about our ancient world and the jobs that have come and gone again has a larger impact than just the immediate story. As we noted above, we can start to see trends, peaks and curves in how society moves, reacts, and shapes positions, careers, and work based on technology, society, needs, and the like.

We once discussed a famous (and oft-truncated) quote which most know the paraphrase of, that being ‘there’s nothing new under the sun.’ The full quote is a little different than that, and actually has a different point than most think, that being that while things change all the time, and new things come and go, some core elements of humanity remain the same.

It’s these core elements that looking at ancient jobs and ancient life can show to us. We don’t have milkmen today because milk comes in cartons from stores. But in looking at the distribution of milk from the era of milkmen, perhaps we can find an application for our Sci-Fi story, or our fantasy story, with a similar commodity in a similar situation.

Yes, milkmen may be gone. But what about a spellman (or woman) who comes around a fantasy community twice a week to charge up the magic that keeps their icebox going, or their magic lights? Or maybe he’s not even magic at all, but someone who has a rudimentary electric generator and this society discovered batteries centuries earlier and finds them easy to make, but not generation methods?

Or maybe you’re writing about space colonies, and there’s a guy who comes through the mining asteroids once a month with new shipments of water?

Milkmen might be a dead job now, but the conditions that led to their rise and existence? They can—and almost assuredly will—arise again. And if you recognize and understand what those conditions are, then when they occur in your own work, you’ll be able to identify them and make use of them!

Even cooler is that your readers will be impressed and think you clever for it! “Incredible!” they’ll exclaim. “I’d never thought self-driving car AIs being modeled after butlers and footmen in a society that begins to resemble the Victorian era, but it makes so much sense!”

To which you’ll be able to smile, wink, and move on. Because it really wasn’t that large a leap once you spotted the patterns.

So yes, learn about the ancient world and ancient jobs. Not just because this will allow you to replicate them in settings that are directly contemporary, but because knowing the causes and forces that shaped how those jobs came into being will allow you to more realistically give life to your own setting, be it in deep space or a distant fantasy, watery moon orbiting a tidally locked world. Seeing the forces that shape the need for jobs, that give rise to a demand that the clever fill … All of this makes for change. Change makes for conflict.

And stories are about conflict, big or small.

So don’t hesitate to read that wiki entry about dyers, or wool-combers. Find out exactly what killed lectors, or ice cutters, or a pinsetters as jobs. Learn what new jobs took their place, or have arisen in the last few years.

Because you never know. You might just find the bit of social knowledge you need to make your next big hit.

Good luck. Now get writing.

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