Probably one of the most frustrating thing I hear about fantasy authors is the belief that we make everything up. We come up with a world, stick people in it, add a touch of magic, and voila! Fantasy story. The end.
The truth is, we actually do a fair amount of research. Precise details can bring a sense of realism to our fantastical worlds and often we take vital cues from already existing cultures and beliefs.
Today, Amy Beatty wants to discuss just that – the importance of research in all writing, including fantasy.
Amy and I are friends and fellow authors at Immortal Works press.
Researching the Daydream
by Amy Beatty
All fiction is a shared daydream. Whether a story’s setting is modern day Chicago, Paris during the Second World War, Edo period Japan, or a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, the writer invites readers to enter a world that is different in some ways from their own—a mentally constructed virtual reality.
And the number one rule for the fiction writer is:
Don’t break the daydream.
Imagine signing up for a much-needed vacation to an exotic retreat, where you’re sure to meet fascinating new people and participate in thrilling adventures. You buy the ticket, board the plane, and make friends with the person in the seat next to you. With a roar of engines and a stomach-clenching lurch, the plane takes off, climbing into the sky. A flight attendant wheels her cart of goodies down the aisle in your direction. Delicious smells fill the cabin—it’s not just peanuts this time! Your mouth waters in anticipation.
Abruptly, everything erupts in a flash of static and disappears.
“Sorry,” says some broom-wielding dude in the corner. “I tripped over the cord. Also, your mother-in-law is coming over, and your kid is wearing your underwear on his head again.”
Boom. There you are, dumped straight back into your own reality without so much as a by-your-leave.
That’s what it’s like when the author breaks the daydream for a reader.
And that’s why good research is so important for writers—the daydream is only fun when it’s convincing and immersive. Details make all the difference. But a writer can only write about what the writer knows about.
So, a mystery writer might study police procedure, a romance writer might study relationship psychology, a writer of realistic historical fiction might scour old almanacs for historic farming practices, and a fantasy writer . . .
Wait. Fantasy writers don’t have to do research, do they? They can just make everything up. It’s fantasy, after all; anything could happen.
But when something happens in a fantasy story that breaks the established rules of its fantasy reality, it jolts the reader in the same way as when a realistic story breaks the established rules of the real world.
As a result, researching for fantasy is, in some ways, actually more complicated than researching for realistic fiction.
For realistic fiction, an author only needs to do enough research to determine whether a specific technology (for example) really does (or did historically) indeed exist in the time and place in which the story is set. For fantasy, however, the writer must determine whether it’s plausible that the technology in question could exist in the time and place of the story, given the context of everything else that has already been established about the world of the story.
For example, some technologies can only be developed after the technologies used to make their component parts have been invented. Are all the necessary component technologies present in the world? Also, if a technology is being utilized in one aspect of a society, it will almost certainly show up in others. A civilization that uses steam-powered tanks to achieve world domination will be more convincing if it also employs steam powered water pumps and agricultural equipment.
One fantasy book I read used specific ethnic groups and place-names to indicate that the setting was an alternate version of early medieval Europe. Then, in the middle of the story, the characters casually sat down to a dinner that included turkey and potatoes. For me, this broke the daydream because both of these items originate in the New World, which would not yet have been discovered at the time in which the story was set.
This could have been fixed in one of two ways. First, the author could have mentioned in passing at some point before the meal that a new land had been discovered across the sea (placing it earlier in the fictional history than it occurred in real history). Alternately, and probably more appropriately for this story, the author could have simply substituted similar foods that would have been available in the time and place the author had chosen, such as goose and turnips. But as it was, the discrepancy between the established milieu and the items that didn’t fit that milieu was jarring, and it took me a while to get back into the story.
By contrast, in another book, set in an alternate version of modern-day London, a wizard and his apprentice toss a hand grenade into the basement of a suburban home in order to eliminate vampires who have taken up residence. The author’s careful description of the label on the grenade is a potent detail that not only raises the tension and augments the sense of immersion, but also helps convince the reader that if the author got the details right on the hand grenades, he’s probably also right about the vampires.
An author who is striving for a realistic setting for a story needs to make sure that what happens in the story conforms to the reality with which the reader is familiar.
Likewise, an author who works toward a plausible fantasy setting needs first to convey to the reader the parameters of the story’s virtual reality, and then the author is under the same obligation to make the story conform with that established reality.
In either case, a lot of research can be necessary. Because the number one rule for the fiction writer is:
Don’t break the daydream.
About Amy Beatty
Amy Beatty grew up in the wilds of Yellowstone National Park as part of an experiment in crossing the genes of a respected research biologist with those of a grammar aficionado. She spent her summers making forts under the sagebrush with her friends and catching garter snakes by the creek to populate elaborate sandbox villages—or holed up in her bunk bed exploring the exotic worlds hidden between the covers of books.
She currently lives in Utah with her husband and their two delightfully unconventional children. For fun, she likes to cut big pieces of cloth into small pieces of cloth and then sew them together again. Several of her quilt projects have been exhibited in juried shows at a local art museum.
Amazon Author Page: www.amazon.com/author/amybeatty
Amy’s Book, Dragon Ascending
Edrik, son of the murdered Drake regent, never gained his dragon magic and cannot shapeshift into his dragon form. Unfit to marry his love, the Princess Lissara, Edrik embarks on a dangerous mission to prove himself worthy. He seeks Lissara’s missing father, the dragon king, before an enemy usurps the throne.
Unfortunately, the search for the king brings Edrik to a dungeon located in human territory. Inside the prison, Edrik discovers the missing king, whose captors are unaware of his true identity. Edrik must rely on a grubby young dungeon keeper to help them escape without disclosing that his companion is the dragon king. But the dungeon keeper has a secret identity as well, one that will change Edrik’s destiny forever.
You can find Dragon Ascending on Amazon and all major online book retailers.
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