Researching the Fantastical
‘Research? What research?’So says the high fantasy writer with glee to a writer of just about any other genre you choose, even other speculative fiction genres. Some sub-genres of Science Fiction might run a close second, although most will have at least a passing acquaintance with actual science. Other Fantasy genres, such as Urban or Historical Fantasy, will require some research into current or past events.
Only the High Fantasy writer draws solely from the imagination.
Except… that’s not quite true.You can write a High Fantasy novel with no research and using nothing but the imagination, but it is by far the scenic route if you will. Many writers use short cuts – after all, why reinvent the wheel, right?
Robert Jordan gives a nod to the many species of evil creature in mythology when he named his Trolloc clans. His world is also our world – but many turns of the wheel into the future – and a Mercedes badge makes an appearance, among other relics of our time. Jacqueline Carey writes in a world that is an alternate Earth, and so she must be familiar with many of the events of our history, as they also appear in hers. Terry Brooks wrote his stories in a world that was all that remained of ours post-apocalypse.Even if you don’t go this far, a familiarity with the ancient cultures of our world can be a source of inspiration. Joe Abercrombie remarked that research is unnecessary, but at the same time made reference to trips to Europe being ‘research’ trips. I found the art and architecture of ancient Europe astonishing, and beyond anything I had ever imagined before laying eyes upon them. Similarly, square coins, or currency with holes through the middle, were not something I ever conceived until I stumbled across them while researching.
So what do I research?Most of my research goes into world building, into creating place and cultures. For me, creating a fully functioning society from scratch, with the depth and intricacy of a real society, is incredibly difficult.
Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time was my first encounter with a world that had that level of depth. Each country had its own people, with their own features, own local costume, own currency, own symbols, colours and insignia, own societal structure and politics, own architecture and own trade goods. If you have half a dozen kingdoms, that’s an awful lot of time you might spend creating all that information, and for no better reason than to be able to add a subtle richness of detail in the appropriate places.So I cheat. There, I said it. I do.
I borrow extensively from the histories and cultural traditions of an ancient culture, and assign certain aspects of a given culture to a given country in my world. I might choose a culture based on local weather, so the clothing will match the climate of my country, or I might choose a culture that matched a particular characteristic of my country, such as the oppression of women. This gives me a myriad of tiny details that I can then use for the basis of my culture, and tweak as needed – for make no mistake, I will not slavishly follow the historical facts if they do not suit my world.
I don’t build country profiles either. I research the culture and create a file containing all the relevant information for reference as needed; more often than not in the revision stages.One thing I don’t do is use languages. Languages are tricky. While it’s unbelievable everyone should speak the same language, languages can also deter the reader, and may be an impediment to plot. Does the main character speak all languages fluently? If yes, why? If no, what happens if they need to speak to someone from another country?
To some extent I use our world as a model – many varied languages, but one language (like English) which is used extensively internationally. I don’t create these languages – I am not a linguist like Tolkien. I only create a word as it is needed.
The other area I research is biomes – what climate occurs at what latitude. This helps me to build in geographical features, local botany and wildlife in much the same quick and easy way I do cultures.
If my hero is in the woods, I can just refer to the appropriate file for the appropriate biome if I need to mention a plant or animal or describe scenery.
I’m sure not all fantasy writers go as far as I do – perhaps a few go further. I am sure, though, that most borrow to some degree.
After all, if we didn’t, we’d never get to the actual writing part.
Here are links to Ciara Ballintyne and her writings:
Official Website: http://www.ciaraballintyne.com
Twitter name and URL: @CiaraBallintyne http://twitter.com/ciaraballintyne
A Magical Melody: http://www.ciaraballintyne.com/ShortStoriesCiaraBallintyne.html