Writing settings: established vs. original

Having gotten deeper into the research and writing of the setting material for Project Atlantis, I find myself musing over a dilemma: should I be writing a non-historical fantasy setting instead?

It’s tempting because, at least for a purely fantastic world, you don’t have to do the research. You can literally make up any events, explanations, technology, et cetera, and you only have to worry about maintaining internal consistency, not consistency with a well-known external standard that is outside your control. Granted, that’s also true if you’re writing in someone else’s canon, although if it’s a fictional canon, there’s even a little more leeway there. You can invent a new place or event or person in, say, the Forgotten Realms, which is a luxury you can’t exploit in writing about a historical or even pseudo-historical setting. Well, perhaps you could, but it’s way easier to run afoul of established fact unless you keep things small.

On the other hand, working in a milieu that precedes you lets you take advantage of its narrative momentum. A lot of the basic exposition is already taken care of for you: you can mention an individual or a place and it already has weight and connotations. One of the major draws of Atlantis for me is that it already has basic associations that are useful to me through general familiarity with the myth, although it also is enough of a nebulous quantity that I can fill in details as I like. The average person couldn’t even name the one terrain feature or city given in the myths, for instance, and as a writer that gives me tremendous freedom to show off my world-building skills, while at the same time having the incredible narrative advantage of a number of tropes already at my disposal: the doomed civilization, the ancient vanished empire, the secrets of lost lore, and much more.

This is such a huge advantage, of course, that I’m far from the first person to tap into it, which is another problem. Countless variations on the Atlantis story have already been done, to the point that some people tune out automatically at the mention. They expect that they know what’s coming next already: the undersea city, amphibious people, aquatic technology. There’s also connotation accumulated around the meme of Atlantis that is counterproductive: Atlantis has become one of the constellation of hobby-horses of New Age crackpottery. It’s difficult to pick and choose the associations that come with a known narrative. In general, established properties only have the advantage of foreknowledge to a point, and there’s a certain extent beyond which they eventually become worn out. Even with what I’m planning to do with the story – focusing on the fall, giving an alternate version of the aftermath – I have to do a lot of explanation, which ends up being the same amount of work as writing something out of whole-cloth.

So that’s the conundrum. The mechanics are coming along well, but the surrounding fiction is a bit more complicated. I’m trying to do a lot of specific research on the classical civilizations that would have been around Atlantis at the time it disappeared, which is fascinating work but also time-consuming. More as it develops.