All the time, people tell me,
“Thanks for all your advice, Mr. Horne. By golly, I’d love to be a scifi/fantasy author, but I can’t come up with any good ideas for such settings.”
Well, today is your lucky day, because I have a revelation for you:
You don’t need to make up anything.
Oh, you is so precious.
That’s right. You don’t need to come up with any new magic systems or world ideas to write fantasy, because guess what? There are thousands of public domain ideas lying around, unused for centuries. They go by many names, but for the purposes of this post, we will just call them “hokum”.
As Seen on The Big Bang Theory
It’s Dr. Sheldon Cooper’s favorite word, and today it is your lifeline, because it turns out that history is littered with philosophies, magic systems, and imaginary worlds that people actually believed in and are all now within the public domain. Some of them have never been used for fiction. Others have only been lightly used, or have fallen out of favor in recent decades, and are ripe for revival.
Let’s examine a few of them.
Hollow Earth Theory
Here’s a good one that hasn’t seen the light of day since Jules Verne. It’s long overdue for a comeback.
Ever wanted to write a story that takes place on contemporary Earth, but involves exploration? Then you know the frustration of learning that all seven continents have been more or less mapped.
But worry not, for an ancient pseudoscientific theory can open the door you think is forever closed. It is called “Hollow Earth Theory”, and it is exactly what it sounds like.
Now your world has two maps—one for the outside and one for the inside—and the latter of those can be drawn however you want it to be. It makes for the perfect fantasy setting. No need to wander through wardrobes and into other universes. Today’s Narnia can be right under our feet, if you’re willing to take up the mantle.
Want to make a magic system interesting by limiting its use, but can’t think up a fictional resource that the magic needs to consume? Look no further than phlogiston—a once-scientific theory postulating that flammable materials already contained the essence of fire, and that this essence (the material’s “phlogiston”) was merely released during the process of burning.
And everyone who reads your book will congratulate you on how clever you are, mixing real-world scientific history with fantasy to create a compelling magic system, even though all you did was use the name of a disproven substance as part of your lore.
Ever wanted to live in a world where people can make their own animals with minimal effort? Better yet, have you ever wanted to write about such a world? Then spontaneous generation is the quack science for you!
Mice from haystacks, lice from sand, maggots from meat, and lizards from rocks. Your world can be set in the distant past, where breeding animals is a task performed only by wizards who know how to conjure them from inanimate resources. Or you can set your story in the far future, where mass cloning is made possible through the miracle of half-mad hokum.
Because, after all, Hippocrates was the greatest doctor who ever lived. That’s why all modern doctors pledge their fealty to him, right?
Well, don’t get too deluded by the romanticism of modern medicine, because in reality Hippocrates was a real Zoidberg.
Imagine a world where a woman’s uterus will gain sentience and try to move around her body causing health problems, and the only cure is pregnancy. That’s the kind of fantasy setting you can create with Hippocratic medicine (I’m not joking: if you’ve ever heard some of the strange medical practices of the Middle Ages and wondered, “Where did they get these cockamamie ideas from?”, chances are good that they were just variations on Hippocrates’ works).
While none of the above ideas would fly in real life, any one of them could make for a great fantasy or scifi setting, with a little bit of ingenuity.
Don’t throw up your hands and say that you have no ideas. That’s not for you to judge, and besides, there are lots of free ideas already in circulation that no one else wants. For the love of Sheldon, seize them!
[This week’s tagline: “Where people come…for ideas.”]