fantasy, fiction, research

Now Departing…

From reality, naturally.

Mirror-posted over at Mad Genius Club

Moose in Muskeg
Moose, in the Forty-Mile of Alaska

Do you need to research when writing a fantasy novel? Not only yes, but please, do! Far too many are written without any research at all, hinging on the author’s limited imagination and lavish dollops of magical interventions. First of all, resist the urge to use magic as a panacea. Give it costs, make it hurt to use, at times. Keep it consistent. But that is not what I’m writing about today.

For one thing, I’m writing a contemporary fantasy. About half of the book is set in familiar places, and I need to get them at least somewhat right. Which led to poring over topo maps of the Mount St. Helens area looking for a suitable location for a nest of ogres. I visited the area a couple of times, but I’m not going to rely on decades-old recollections. I discovered to my delight that there are caves, with an apt name, in the area. Then I promptly made another cave up.

See, I can base what I’m doing on reality, but without the time and trouble to go there, I couldn’t get enough details to make it perfect, and anyway, I was going to stuff a family of ogres in there before blowing the whole thing up, which would depart from reality by a mile.

So why bother with some details? I was asked this the other day after a chance comment about looking up marriage licenses in Alaska. I wanted to see how long it would take from decision point to legal marriage. The answer is three days, and the reason I wanted to know was to make sure I didn’t have my crazy characters run out and tie the knot that same day. For details like that, you get cranky emails from readers.

In Pixie Noir, I wrote a throw-away account of the accident that claimed the lives of Bella’s parents. I could have written that they died in a car accident, but I added a bit of detail, basing it on an accident I knew had taken the life of a childhood friend’s father. He struck a bison at well over a hundred miles an hour, I was told. Beta readers of my manuscript complained. There are no buffalo in Alaska, they insisted. I polled my facebook friends. Very few – and mostly my family who live there – knew about the bison herd near Delta Junction. So, in that case, I changed it to a moose, even though it wasn’t incorrect. It was just going to throw someone off, and I did insert an author’s note in the back, for giggles.

I recently came across someone who was horribly upset at a Regency novel mentioning stirrups. I was decidedly taken aback, myself, as I knew Western saddles have had stirrups at least that far back. I’ve ridden in a saddle made in the late 1800s myself. English saddles, this person insisted, have no stirrups. Someone else, not me (because I like the person) posted links to the wiki article about saddles, which included the long history of stirrups, and no more was said on the topic. Which goes to show that no matter how much research you do, readers may still get the wrong idea from time to time.


And I just mentioned a wiki article, and yes, I do mean wikipedia. If I were writing a historical novel, I wouldn’t stop there (although I do find the biblio sources a great jumping-off point for more in-depth research). For the light writing of a novel, I will use wiki from time to time. Need to mug up on kitsune? How about the Japanese kami Inari? Oh, that link looks promising… And bob’s your uncle, Daniken the female kami who rides a white fox. Which, when I’d just written an Arctic Fox kitsune, was serendipitous.

Actually, that business of following links can be dangerous. You can start out here, then go there, and wind up with this… and suddenly, the clock says it’s dinner time and you just had breakfast. I control this by setting my penguin (kitchen timer I use to motivate me when the writing gets hard. You can do anything for 15 minutes. It’s a neat mental trick) for a set time, and ready, set, research. I don’t usually take notes. I do have some sites bookmarked, as I use them regularly, but usually I just go through google to begin with. Again, I’m not doing historical fiction, which is a different matter altogether. One that scares me, a little.

There’s a certain line between just enough research, and too much. I think it’s like salting food, and then you will have readers who prefer salty food, and those who prefer bland. Beta readers will help with this, especially if you ask them to note where in the book their eyes crossed with boredom. Info-dumps are generally a bad idea, no matter how much time and energy you wasted invested in your research. Sometimes you can make them interesting, but often you must be more subtle and slip it into the story a dribble at a time.

Sorry about all the food metaphors. I got distracted and waylaid this morning by this, which led to finding this, and onward through this, and now I am trying to figure out how to get those hours of my life back. Perhaps the next book will feature some truly horrifying recipes?


0 thoughts on “Now Departing…

  1. I set a timer to. It’s a little app on my computer and it absolutely howls at me, literally. It’s like a insane wolf pack sound, which works. I set it just the other day as I was looking up what sort of terrains certain metal ores could be found in. Needed to make sure I wasn’t arming up a bunch of infantry with materials that wouldn’t have existed in their geography. But that was a rabbit trail that had me looking up smelting and steel working techniques and luckily, the trusty timer howled at me.

    I agree though, even if you’re writing fantasy, if you’re going to have some of the rules the same in your world as RL, then get the fact as near straight as you can. And yes! Magic should cost something. Enjoyed this post and following you.

    Also, you can die from hitting a deer as well. My dad and I came close one night almost hit one that froze one night and another time we had to wait for a baby black bear. That surprised us.

      1. If you have an Apple device, it’s called the Howler Timer in the App store. And yes, I’d probably find something less jolting if I was writing horror. It startled be bad enough today, writing some darker fantasy!

  2. Great post, Cedar, and you’re right about needing to keep the details to those that won’t knock your reader out of the story. Funny, though, I knew about the bison in Alaska. I’d read about them somewhere but I can see how others would scratch their heads and wonder if you’d messed up your facts. Thanks for reminding me to check on something in my next book to make sure it isn’t something local folks take for granted but those not from the area would wonder about.

  3. Good article! And speaking of historical fiction! I just finished reading a non-fiction book about the evidence that the Chinese had substantial settlements in North and South America LONG before Columbus! Book is called Who Discovered America? by Gavin Menzies, and I could SO see someone doing a series of historical novels based on this guy’s research (and he does have a website with lots of links for looking up his sources and other evidence that missed going in the books he’s written). He is, of course, an evolutionist, and so uses dates that are probably too old for some things, but it’s still a very interesting book. Would love to see someone doing this from a Creation viewpoint, though.

  4. Oh, and about the bison….Cedar, I don’t know if you remember Uncle Doug telling this story, but one time he hit a bison on that same stretch of road. Thankfully, it was a calf, and also thankfully, he wasn’t going a hundred miles an hour! He was driving a pickup with a camper on the back, and had three other people with him, so they hopped out, dragged the dead bison calf into the camper, took it home, and put it in the freezer!

  5. I followed the recipe links out of morbid curiosity… O.o Dear *sanity*. What were they thinking?!

    My research question cropped up when my MC clocked somebody in the head. My writing group pointed out that IRL, the victim would probably die of the head injury. Cue the weird questions for my military brother and physical therapist friend….

    1. Not all head injuries are fatal, as the human brain is well-protected and not quite as fragile as it’s made out. However, there could be all sorts of short-term and long-term side effects to the injured party.

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