How Do You Research That?

December 15, 2009 at 5:15 am (drafting) (, , , , )

Research is one of the essential tools of any writer, regardless of what they are writing.  Direct observation of people and places is one form of research that we all undertake every day but for most of us, this is only the beginning of the lengthy researching process.

I write fantasy and I don’t actually mind too much when someone tells me that fantasy isn’t real writing.  Mostly because when someone tells me that it tells me more about the person than about what I am writing.  I do mind when people tell me that fantasy writing must be easy because ‘you can just make stuff up’.  I can just make stuff up?  Why didn’t someone tell me that sooner?

Admittedly I do have a lot of leeway with facts and even after the research process if I haven’t come across something suitable I can create something new, but I have to do it in such a way that people believe it.  That means there are basic rules and preconceptions that have to be met or the reader is just going to roll their eyes.  How do I know what rules and preconceptions there are? I research.

My reference collection is a bit on the odd side but it has steadily been growing over the years.  Lots of books on mythology, all kinds of mythology.  The latest addition was a book on Japanese fairy tales.  This gives me a chance to look at similarities between mythical creatures across the world as well as the differences.  Dragons turn up in every single mythology but the differences are extraordinary.  So, when I say there is a dragon in front of my protagonist, people instantly get the image they are most familiar with, unless I give them more information to go on and I best not say it is a wyrm if it isn’t (learnt that lesson the hard way – one critique of a short story ended up being a five page list of types of dragons and why mine didn’t fit into any of them).

Mythological creatures however is only a tiny fraction of the research.  The online research is generally extensive.  If you have a knight carrying a sword, what kind of sword is he carrying?  Does he swing it? Thrust with it? Stab?  Could he chop through a log with it or would that just dent the blade?  Some readers are extremely picky about their swords.  To me, a sword is a long shiny thing you hit stuff with.  I don’t focus on sword fights in my stories but being fantasy, it is fairly inevitable that swords will come into them, even if just in passing.  I don’t want to make a passing comment and have a reader throw the book down in disgust and then send me a lengthy email explaining why I haven’t got a clue.

Then we have styles of dress and construction and various landscapes and on and on and on the research goes. It is a good thing I am curious by nature and that I like keeping trivia files of random facts.  It means that usually I have some information on a given topic close at hand but other times I need to go a little further in my research.

How do you go about your research and how much do you do before writing the story?


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