Sunday, March 31, 2013

Why Even A Fantasy World Needs Research - by Shawna Reppert

Posted by: Veronica Scott
Today's Here Be Magic blog post is from Shawna Reppert, whose upcoming book THE STOLEN LUCK releases May 6:

Many writers new to fantasy don’t fully understand the need for research in their writing. After all, it’s their own, made-up world, right? If they are writing about blobs of ether that live on rainbows and don’t follow the rules of the physical world, they may be right. But such a book would be unlikely to find a wide readership. Why? Because readers want to be able to relate to the characters and their struggles. They want the book to feel real, even if the protagonist is an elf and the villain a dragon. The world needs to make sense. Even in an imaginary world, the history needs to be logical. There’s a reason that broadswords came before sabers, and if you have a character trained to broadsword comes across a rare antique fencing blade from a previous age, you’d better have a really good explanation in your worldbuilding.

That’s where research comes in. Readers can accept the fantastic elements of story as real— at least for the span of the tale— so long as the realistic elements in the tale are just that. Realistic. Nothing jolts a reader out of a tale faster than a tooth-on-tinfoil anachronism or an animal acting against its nature or, worse, its physical capabilities. The newbie writer might ask if it really matters. After all, what are the odds that the reader is an expert at archery or horsemanship? But remember, readers of fantasy are attracted to the milieu as well as the story. Many of them take their interest into real-world activities such as riding, shooting (both bow and, for the pirate crowd, black powder) and historical reenactment. If nothing else, a large percentage of the population has had enough summer horse camp experience to know why you can’t gallop a horse for miles and then let it drink its fill from an icy mountain stream unless you want to be walking the rest of your journey (to use an example from a published author who really should have known better).

Moreover, even when the reader doesn’t know his or her stuff, the reader can tell when the writer does. There’s something about rich, correct detail that makes things feel real. When you read George R. R. Martin’s Fevre Dream, you may not know about steamboats, but you can tell that the author does. (He does a less stellar job with the horses in some of his other works, but that’s a rant for another blog.) Likewise, Laurie R. King’s highly successful Holmes and Russell books brings the post-WWI world alive for the reader in a way that would not be possible without extensive research. (The latter is not fantasy, I know. Allow me my latest obsession.)

Now that I’ve (hopefully) convinced you of the whys of research, let’s move on to the how’s. There are, of course, scholarly books written on just about every subject you can imagine, and they’re not a bad place to start. They can be dry reading, though, are often expensive, and of limited usefulness when you are just starting out and don’t even know what you don’t know. If you are writing in a time period in which you can obtain surviving original-source material (journals, newspapers, books written during that period) I highly recommend you treat yourself to a thorough immersion. For example, there are many Victorian-era memoirs and anthologies of news and articles of the day, as well as fiction written in that era, and these can give you not only the details you need but also the flavor of the thoughts, values, and speech patterns of the era. When I moved from a medieval fantasy to a steampunk project, I felt absolutely spoiled by the wealth of material, much of it in the public domain and therefore available ridiculously cheap on Kindle.

The internet is a great source of free information, much of it wrong. Cross-check your facts, know your sources, and let the researcher beware. I’ve found Wikipedia mostly useful for quick checks of small but important facts, like whether there are ravens in Australia (there are) or black swans in North America (Though they are native to Australia, they have naturalized in places in the UK, so there’s no reason that an urban fantasy in the Pacific NW can’t have black swans with a little back story about a wealthy ancestor’s menagerie.)

I strongly suggest that you also step outside the box and the book in your research. When I first started working on The Stolen Luck and realized my protagonist was a vintner, I signed up for Wineology 101, a weekend-long self-guided wine tour combined with classes on wine-related topics. Not only did I pick up facts on wine, winemaking and viniculture, I got the feel for what it was like to be out among the rows of vines. I heard the passion for the wine and the vineyards in the vintner’s voices, and this experience helped me bring James Dupree alive.

There are tons of people out there who know what you need to know on any subject, and the most magical words in the English language are “I’m a writer, and I’m researching a book.” A friend of a friend on Facebook took a question I had on tracking dogs to someone she knew who handled dogs for the FBI, and I got a very thorough answer. For my (yet unpublished) medieval fantasy, I asked a couple of archers I knew if they’d like the chance to fix all the annoying things an author gets wrong before the book appeared in print. I thought it was going to be a quick Q&A. They had me over to their house, fed me dinner, and spent four hours telling me all the things about archery I didn’t know enough to ask. They used photographs of deer to show me the ideal shots a hunter would go for, let me handle the different points that would be used for hunting versus shooting through mail in period, talked about the stench of gutting a deer and how even seasoned hunters sometimes lose their lunch. They even loaned me a longbow at the next archery practice so I could get a feel for how it was different from the cheap hobbyist recurve I usually shoot.

Be respectful of people’s time, of course, and always take ‘no’ for an answer, but you’ll be surprised by who will take time out of their day to answer your questions far more fully than you expected.

Be creative and resourceful. When I needed to set a few chapters of an urban fantasy in progress in Australia, a continent I’ve never set foot on, I was stumped until I remembered a previous internet flirtation with a gentleman from Tasmania. I dropped him a line, and though we had been out of contact for months, he was more than happy to oblige.

Other writers can often be a great resource, and you may be able to trade expertise, for example, your knowledge of exotic poisons for their knowledge of 19th century sailing ships.

I belong to a Yahoo group for writers called Joys of Research. It’s open membership, and members post questions in hopes that it will fall into someone’s area of expertise. So far I haven’t seen a single question go unanswered. Past topics have included early-period plant poisons, talismans in early Judeo-Christian lore, the etymology of the word ‘creditor’, the rates of decomposition of corpses under various conditions, and whether cops on duty but undercover at a bar will drink alcohol to keep their cover.

Research is necessary to build a fantasy world that feels real to your readers. Approach it with a sense of fun and adventure, and you may find you enjoy it. You might even discover new plot possibilities and make a few friends along the way.


  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on research, I enjoyed the read

  2. Great post Shawna! I have to check out that Yahoo group.


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