31 Days of Post (2) Day 23: How Much Research Is Too Much?
Fantasy (and science fiction) is, perhaps, the most research intensive of the literary genres. We’re centuries gone from the medieval period. Sword use is an extreme, though still cool, niche hobby. When was the last time someone came upon a lost crypt with awesome treasures and strangely advanced booby traps? So, obviously, writing fantasy demands a lot of research. But how far should the research go? When is the research too much?
The answer is, honestly, a complex one. A writer needs to do enough research in order to accomplish these goals: achieve a sense of verisimilitude, get any real world cultures right, and have a good basis for ideas. But, the writer must not allow him or herself to be bogged down by their research.
I guess a lot of the answer depends on what type of world one is constructing.
If Earth is the featured setting (either contemporary or historical), then a good amount of research is demanded. If the setting is 1450 Paris, do your freaking research. Most of your readers probably won’t be able to tell how accurate you are, but you can be sure that some of your readers will. And given our critical culture today, you’ll be called out on it. If your setting is contemporary Thailand (or near future Thailand), do your freaking research. Make damn sure you don’t butcher your subject. You will get caught, even if you win awards for it (The Windup Girl, anyone?).
When it comes to secondary worlds, the research can, I think, be looser. Perhaps all that is needed is to give the writer and reader a mutual grounding in the world of the text. This could be as simple as obsessing over food or other mundane details of everyday life that would have been a staple of the period of influence. Some writers barely do any research, and some writers can be described as lay scholars. The balance is up to the individual writer.
Readers, though, also bring whatever knowledge they have to the world of the text. One of the recurring themes of contemporary criticism of fantasy is how religion is incorporated into fictional worlds. Let us use the medieval period as an example. In the medieval period, religion was a central concern for practically all people. One could not escape religion. But a lot of fantasy worlds don’t have a similar attitude towards religion. So, what is going on? Remember religion is not as important today as it was centuries ago (by and large). Hell, religion may not even be a concern of the writer (while it is an obsession of specific readers). The same could be true of anything. I read an awesome article on fencing styles and how they could be used to greatly inform fantasy world building. But while it would be awesome, it is not necessary.
There is also the danger to making the influence so apparent as to become allegory. Take A Song of Ice and Fire as an example. Is the series just a retelling of The Wars of the Roses with some adjustments? No, but taking the research too far could lead to that conclusion (not that some readers don’t already make that conclusion).
Research is unavoidable when it comes to writing fantasy. It can be an act of such fun learning that one does not want to get to the actual writing of the story. And some can be so bogged down with so much research that they might as well write a history. In the end. it is up to the writer to decide a sufficient level of research.