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?