Research for a Fantasy Story

Yes, I’m writing a fantasy story and yes, I’m doing research. I believe that research to one degree or another is going to come into most any writing project, unless you’re writing a memoir or something that you’re truly an expert on. Roz Morris wrote a fantastic post about ways to do research for a novel, so I’m not going to try to duplicate what she wrote.

Even if you’re writing a realistic work of fiction, you might still need to a bit of research to add that extra touch of realism to something that you know nothing about. What if your main character owns several Great Danes, but you’ve never been near a dog bigger than a Chihuahua in your life? A little research—hands-on or otherwise—might be in order.

Obviously, historical fiction is the most research-heavy genre. Depending on your story and your intended audience, you don’t have to be a stickler for every detail, but general accuracy is good. For example, a historical fiction tale set in medieval London should not make mention of Queen Victoria. Unless you’re trying to weave in time-travel or some other fantastical element, this would be a glaring mistake.

I wrote a blog post a while back about world-building for fantasy and sci-fi, and the use of research. And so, in keeping with my own advice, I’m doing some research for my current fantasy trilogy. Here are three of the main subjects I’m researching:

Musical instruments—specifically, the traditional folk instruments of Finland and other Scandinavian regions.  I’m not trying to be historically accurate, or even accurate with the details of instrument construction or use, because this is a fantasy world. The world is inspired by the mythology of Finland, however, and so I want the musical instruments—like the jouhikko, the kantele, and the mouth harp—to reflect this. YouTube has been my primary research tool—ancient Finnish folk music is alive and well today, and YouTube lets me both see and hear the instruments in action.

Reindeer—specifically, the reindeer and their herders in Finland. This has required the most research (since two of my main characters are reindeer herders from modern-day Finland). My main source of information has been internet searches, but I’ve read some books, too (both fiction and non-fiction) that involve reindeer and the Sami people.

Even when I deem my research complete and publish my stories, there will probably be inaccuracies. But since my intended audience is the average North American/Western European reader of fantasy adventure books, I’m not too concerned with every detail. I want enough of the setting/culture/details of the animals to be accurate enough to give the reader a flavor of this very real yet very foreign lifestyle.

Northern Lights—specifically, what aurora scientists right now are studying and how they’re doing it. Again, this is a research-intensive topic, and one where I will probably wind up with inaccuracies despite my best efforts. The internet has been my only source of information about this, with my main focus being the websites of universities that have aurora programs. My next step, if I feel I need more detailed information, would be to contact some of the people at these universities to ask specific questions. Again, though, like with the reindeer, I’m writing my stories for readers of fantasy—not aurora experts or astronomers. I want the reader to feel convinced, but if I get one little jot of technobabble wrong, I don’t consider that a big deal.

Any other writers of fantasy or sci-fi out there? What sort of research have you done for your stories?

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World Building, part 2

Last week I covered three guidelines for creating a convincing world in fantasy and science fiction. I’ve got three more to add to that list.

1. Do your research

This may seem counter-intuitive or unnecessary for something that isn’t real anyway, but some of the best sci-fi and fantasy is well researched before it’s written.

My post on natural laws in the previous world building list could be part of this “research” aspect. Things have to make logical sense within the world that you create.

If you have an alien planet with a gravity of ten times that of earth’s gravity, chances are that the dominant species on that planet will not be humanoid up-right bipeds. A creature with a human-like form and physiology would not be able to withstand the intense gravity. Let your creativity flow, but do a little research first.

For another example, let’s say you’re writing a fantasy story about a medieval-like kingdom battling an invading army. Both sides are using bows and arrows, swords, horse-drawn chariots, and the like. However, if you have an army of women bounding through the treetops, swinging from branch to branch shooting at the enemy with longbows, you might want to stop and do some research.

Longbows can stand six feet high, and shoot an arrow with enough force to pierce through thick metal armor. The bows are much too large and heavy to be wielded by someone bounding through the treetops. This is not to say that you have to become an expert on medieval archery to write a fantasy battle (I probably got some of the details wrong myself in that little illustration). But my point is that a little research on some of the key topics could save you embarrassment later.

2. Names and Languages

Many writers like to invent languages—or at least words and phrases in other languages. Most of us aren’t as adept as Tolkien was, writing several full-fledged dialects of his Elven language. But inventing a few words, or even a system of grammar and syntax, can be a fun challenge and can add a layer of realism to any fantasy story.

Character names should reflect the language, if there is one, and should definitely reflect the setting and the culture. Just imagine how jarring and inappropriate it would have been if Tolkien had tossed in a Braedan and an Emma in with Elrond and Galadriel, or a Josh and Mary in with Théoden and Éowyn.

In my current WIP, I haven’t invented any languages, but I do have characters from several different cultures—and the names are distinct to each culture. One set of creatures—the rulers of the woodland areas—have names that reflect who they are: Forest Dreamsong, Moon in the West, and Summer River. Another kind of creatures have names like Sydämen-Syöjä, Iku-Turso, and Ajatar. There’s no confusion as to which character might belong to which culture.

3. Consistency and Continuity

This is really the most important of all of these world building guidelines, I think, and one that I’ve mentioned repeatedly. No matter how much research you do, or what natural and cultural laws you establish or how many names you invent, the key is to be consistent.

Many readers can forgive a glaring lack of research if the element still fits within the context of the story and is consistent throughout. But I can almost guarantee that readers will be less forgiving if you forget halfway through your story that your alien race breathes only methane. Or if the kingdom in your epic fantasy forbids women to wear purple, and the princess goes out in a violet gown and no one bats an eye, the readers will notice and wonder about it.

With sci-fi and fantasy, you can build any kind of world you want, and that’s what makes those genres so fun. Just remember to establish the rules of your world, do a little research to make those rules believable, and then stick with it! Continuity keeps even the most absurdly fantastical story together.

Any other world building guidelines or suggestions you’d like to share? Please comment!

Walk through the Door

Nike says “Just do it.”

James the brother of Jesus wrote, “Do you need to be shown that faith without actions has no value at all?” (emphasis mine)

Goethe said, “Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do.”

In The Matrix, Morpheus tells Neo: “I told you I can only show you the door. You have to walk through it.”

What’s my point here? My point is that after you’ve learned, studied, believed, been guided, and prepared, it all still comes to nothing if you don’t do something.

While this applies to anything in life, I’m applying it specifically to writing here, since this is supposed to be a writing blog. If you want to be a writer, then you have to write something.

Preparation and training is by all means important. You can—and to one degree or another, probably should—read books and blogs about how to write well. You can plot out an outline for a book, you can do research, you can pore over a baby names website to find the perfect names for your characters. You can put together a playlist of inspiring songs, you can read interviews with all of your favorite authors.

But to be a writer, you actually have to write something.

Side note—I’m not talking about being a published author here (since I’m not one yet). I’m talking about being a writer (I am one of those, because I write).

Sit down and begin the story. Compose a scene, or a bit of dialogue, or the first part of a chapter of your non-fiction book. Your book (or poem or essay or song) will not write itself. And no amount of preparation will get it written, either.

I have been guilty of this more than a few times in the past, of confusing “preparation” with “doing.” I’m a plotter and proud of it, as opposed to a pantser—I painstakingly plot, outline, and make notes about every detail of the plot before I start to tell the story. (A pantser tends to be a bit more of a free spirit-type, and usually will sit down to write before having any idea what they’re going to write about). Neither method is better than the other one, but I think that plotters can fall prey more easily to the deception that “plotting” is the same as “writing.”

Now I am not advocating a lack of preparation. If you don’t have an excellent command of the English language (or whatever language you’re planning to write in), it might help you to take a class or study some grammar and writing books. If your story involves a place, time period, or other subject that you’re not already an expert in, then by all means do some research.

However, I have often gotten so involved in the plotting and research areas that days or weeks will go by without me actually writing anything. Yes, I’m doing important work for my book. But after six days of plotting, brainstorming, developing character backstories, studying maps, and doing other research, I finally take a good look at my manuscript, and discover it’s still blank.

To paraphrase Morpheus’ instructions, you have to walk through the door. Walk is an action, and it’s something that each person must do for themselves. Your English professor can teach you the elements of a good story, but she can’t write the story that’s in your head. Your favorite blogger can give you dialogue tips and point you to sites you can use for research, but he can’t compose your book for you. When Morpheus walked through the Oracle’s door for the first time, he walked through it for himself alone—and now it was Neo’s turn.

And in the world of being a writer, we have to keep walking through the door again and again. Research, study, read, outline…and then go write something. Then it’s back to more researching, reading, and plotting…and then go write something again.

Neo had to step through the Oracle’s door only once–but then he spends the rest of the movie acting on what he learned. It’s a continual process. So is writing. Consistency in writing can be surprisingly hard (and that, I think, is the subject of another blog post). Finding the perfect balance of preparation and action can be challenging, too, and it’s different for every person. But it’s necessary for everyone.

So go read, study, and prepare. And then go write something!