Departing From Reality

Greg Sanderson
Moose in 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.

Korin’s painting of a playful kitsune

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?



  1. yes, have done research for writing (even nonfiction stuff) and gotten lost on a wikiwander myself

  2. I think doing research in a novel that contains fabulous elements is very important because setting the world in reality makes the fabulous elements easier to swallow.

    Regarding historical research, William Goldman wrote that a lot of people objected to a line he wrote in “Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid” where Butch says, “I’ve got vision and the rest of the world is wearing bifocals.” They said that bifocals weren’t around then–but they were. Ben Franklin wore bifocals. It’s the same thing with “English” saddles–the saddles that modern American call “English saddles” don’t have stirrups.

    As a locksmith I can tell you that pretty much anything you see in a movie or read in a thriller about locks, safes, and security systems is going to be wrong, and about half of what you read on the internet is going to be wrong, If you really want to get the details right, find someone who works in the business.

    1. And there is a key to doing really good research – find and talk to someone – pick their brains, as it were. For what I’m writing I have done that a couple of times, by going into the Monster Hunter International forum and asking questions. It’s been most helpful for obscure weaponry.

    2. Misha, not to be a pedant or smart-ass, but do you mean that the saddles do not have the stirrups firmly attached in the same way that western saddles do, or are you saying something different? Because all the “English” saddles I’ve used had stirrup leathers and irons, unless the instructor or I removed them for a reason. I’m curious because I’ve never heard anyone say that “English” saddles don’t have stirrups.

      1. Honestly, I’m not a rider. This is probably another of those bits of misinformation that gets passed around. I thought it was true because no one had ever corrected me before.

          1. I *think* and mind you I’m not sure, but this myth most likely cropped up because English stirrups are most often referred to as irons. They serve the same purpose: to hold the foot while in the saddle. Unless you’re riding bareback or with only a blanket, you’re going to have some form of stirrup, for safety sake.

            1. Or you had a sadistic instructor who makes your ride without them. And do “frog and dog” exercises at the trot. *shoots evil look in a vaguely barnward direction*

              1. Well, it *is* an excellent check to see if your balance and seat are as good as you think they are 😉 I’m not up to cantering sans stirrups yet, but trotting is fine. A bit exciting, but fine.

  3. Recently a friend posted a thing on Facebook about reading. In it, she said that a person who read the news for something like five years would be an international expert. I countered with- A real author, like from this site or some others where writers hang out (not SFWA) where Research is a primary ingredient will give a solid value to reading. IE- What you read is going to have a factual base, not necessarily a certain cave on St. Helen, but similar to the ones that are there. Which tells you there are caves on Mt. St. Helen. However, many if not most current writers make up the story to fit the political climate. Therefore, if one reads the news for five years, they will become an expert in current political thought, not reality.

  4. Wandering through Wikipedia. Been there… I used to do that with Dictionaries and Rogets. That’s one place where the net has NOT improved over paper books. Flipping through one of those books just trying to get to the word you were interested in, and stopping along the way so many times you forget what you were after just doesn’t happen when you have a search box to type in.

  5. For one of my books, I researched flight times from Colorado to New York, the closest airport to the center of NYC, abandoned subway tunnels, and tetrodotoxin all in one day. Only afterwards did I realize that my search history made me look like a terrorist.

  6. Heh, Ape Cave on Mount St. Helens? Another story I’ve heard for how it got its name was because that was where some prospectors fought off ‘apemen’ (there or the similarly-named Ape Canyon) back in 1924. It was a big story for a few weeks in the national news. You should be able to find something online if you check for ‘Ape Canyon’ and ‘Fred Beck’ (who wrote it all up years later). Just to make it more interesting Mister Beck claimed the prospectors found their mine by ‘psychic’ means and with the aid of Ascended Masters along with the always-popular Indian Spirit Guide. There’s even more in the excellent if odd books “When Bigfoot Attacks” by Michael Newton and “The Historical Bigfoot” by Chad Arment. I hope some of that proves helpful with your ogres!

    1. Thanks! I did actually bring Bigfoot into the story, although not as part of the cave’s name, as I’d read that it was named for the climbing club that discovered it.

      1. That seems to be the ‘official’ version, though many Bigfooters are convinced it was so named for the 1924 incident. Though before the 40’s or so what we call ‘Bigfoot’ were more commonly called ‘mountain devils’ in Washington, at least by non-Indians.

  7. For Fantasy writers, I recommend “The Tough Guide to Fantasyland”. It’s written as if it is a guidebook to package tours of a Fantasy world, so it’s all alphabetical entries about all the things and people and places you might encounter on your trip. But what it REALLY is, is a fantastically tongue-in-cheek collection of Fantasy tropes, leavened with a good deal of snark about why they are unrealistic.

    It’s little things, like how all taverns seem to only serve Stew and Ale. (No Chicken) but there’s no mention anywhere of the cattle to provide the beef for the stew, or the grain-fields to supply the brewery – or what it actually is the Peasants DO with their days.

    1. There are a couple of sites online, which I will have to look for, that do that for SF as well. I ordered the Tough Guide last week, after hearing about it for years, I’m looking forward to it.

      1. I have to second the recommendation for the Tough Guide. I need to get a new copy for myself; I gave the old one away years ago, but it is a great book.

        On a less comical level there’s just about any book by Regine Pernoud, a French medievalist who did some amazing research, especially on women in the Middle Ages. Her ‘Women In the Age of the Cathedrals’ is especially amazing. I never knew there were female blacksmiths in medieval Paris; but they were listed on the tax rolls!

    2. The Tough Guide is *great*. I recommended it as the “don’t do this and you’ll be fine” book on a con panel once, and it was reported that the book dealers sold out immediately after. (Buffs nails modestly). As I recall it had a section on how in Fantasyland, horses are JUST like bicycles and never spook/go lame/have “issues” , but you can’t have a conversation while riding one. You have to stop the horses to talk 😀

      1. I had heard about it before it came out (I think it was a book review) and got a friend in England to get me a copy, since it came out there over a year before it came out here.

      2. The story I’m working on now has equus (not horses, but I borrowed the latin) and I have to think about why the people use them instead of floaters or bikes, since there are floaters, bikes and spaceships in the world. Animals for riding aren’t *easier*, not even on rough terrain or off-road, even if the machines are expensive to import.

        It was easier to logic out why my armored space commandos were fighting each other with swords/knives. (…an 18 inch spike they termed “can openers.”)

        1. Sentiment perhaps. When you have fewer working factories, and interstellar transport, self assembling vehicles have some utility whatever the downsides.

          If conditions change, there’s a huge stock on hand, and there are a good amount of people on hand with the skills, they may still see a fair amount of use out of simple inertia.

          Potential issues include if they were ever truly domesticated, how compatible with humans they are in body language and lifestyle, and if the humans have had enough time with them to really care about them.

          Dogs are very compatible with humans, very domesticated, some cultures have a great deal of sentiment for them. Look how many pet dogs per unit working dog.

          I sometimes try to find ways to talk myself (ground pressure, bearing strength, tanks are awesome) into having militarily useful mecha in a serious story.

  8. Back a decade or so ago, when I worked as a reference librarian in a medium sized public library, we had a rather large Romance writers group who would meet there. I had the director purchase several books on clothing from every period from the Medieval to the present, so the writers could research what their characters should be wearing. Most interesting part of the job was answering questions like “What did they wear before the bra was invented?”
    I too have gotten lost in following links while doing an on-line search.

    1. Costuming is indeed an interesting topic. My father re-enacts the eighteenth century, and I developed garb as well, after my mother made me the first set. I don’t think I brought any of those books when I moved though, left them with Dad.

  9. I knew you were writing fantasy when they found a ‘glade’ on the Siuslaw. 🙂 I have spent a lot of time there in the past, and it is fairly uncommon for even the roads not to be overgrown with brush, I can’t recall ever finding an opening big enough to lie down and stretch out in that wasn’t manmade.

    I grew up on the Washington coast, and spent a lot of time hunting the St. Helens area, later I hunted all up and down the Oregon coast with the Siuslaw and Smith river areas being my favorite. Haven’t been back there in quite a few years, but it is always interesting to read about places you know, especially when the authors don’t make glaring mistakes.

    1. Well, believe it or not, that is a from-memory description of a little spot on a hill over my grandmother’s house. I think because of the stream, there was a little gap in the forest. Not big, no, but the vine maple was my favorite place to go visit. Mind you, I was somewhere between 7-9 back then. It’s been close to 30 years now since I’ve been back. So now, it is likely a fantasy, as that hillside was clear-cut the last year I visited her at that house. She’s moved, and is nearer the East side of Oregon.

      1. Vine maples are Perfect for making forts at that age. And they are like a natural jungle jim, too. 😉

      2. By the way, on rereading my post I want to make it clear I was complementing you on not making glaring mistakes, not complaining that the glade was one. You mentioned places that are not common household names that the average reader would be familiar with, and managed to describe them correctly. I’m sure you did the same for places in Alaska, but I am not familiar with them.

        1. Since I grew up in Alaska, and it left an indelible impression on me, I hope I did. Eventually I’ll have to do something in New Hamshire, I suppose. But writing in settings I haven’t been to just means more research, and maybe travel if I can justify it!

    2. I found it kind of funny how many stories in Asimov’s were set in Seattle.

      Although annoyingly, when I think about stories set in Seattle, one anti-human wave (is there a term for that?) story comes to mind first, one where helpful aliens have deleted all the men on Earth, so the entire city is populated by Womyn, and it’s not so bad. The aliens keep the population up by having women spontaneously become pregnant. So helpful.

        1. Apparenty they’re very pragmatic about it. The population has been roughly halved, and well, since they always give birth to girls, it’s AOK to the Womyn. It’s been a few years. The main plot is about a female detective.

  10. Apparently — I don’t read my reviews — Amazon has a review for No Will But His complaining I spell Catherine a dozen different ways and never the same way more than twice. Sigh. The thing is that spelling was much less standardized, PARTICULARLY for names, and these Catherines were al different people and each spelled her name differently. But the commenter is a dumb ass, and so gave me a bad review on that. Catherine of Aragon, Kathryn Howard, there was at least one Caterine (minor character) and a Cathrin (also minor character.)

      1. Right. “Airyn” was our waitress at lunch today. (When she introduced herself, I wasn’t entirely certain if she said “Erin”, or “Aaron”. I was wrong on both counts.)

        On Sat, Jan 11, 2014 at 8:08 PM, madgeniusclub wrote:

        > Cedar Sanderson commented: “and modern names are worse! Really, the > things that stick in people’s craws. You can’t predict them all, all you > can do is be as accurate as possible. ” >

        1. Yep. There is a “Subrina” at my local Wal-Mart. Oh, and I went to school with a “Caterine.”

  11. Before it gets lost in the archives…
    “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.”
    Sometime, do expand on this! Perhaps with cross-references to coincidence and similar ways of making books fly.

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