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.
Part One: Research and Projects
I’m about to start writing The Goetic High, my first novel. This novel is contemporary fantasy, maybe urban fantasy given the setting. At the same time, I’m researching medieval history and culture for the next project, The Lion and the Hare.
I may be jinxing myself, but I want to write a bit about The Lion and the Hare. That project will be a fantasy of epic historicism. And featuring a protagonist probably never seen before in fantasy. Certainly not epic fantasy.
I’ve gotten a fair amount of research done. I’ve learned a lot. And I know where I need to go for further research. But, I’m kind of tired of so much medieval history.
I need a break. Luckily I only have one more book on my docket for the moment.
Fickleness is one of my major character flaws. Life would be so much easier if I could focus on a project and follow through on it. But, I grow bored easily.
What I’ve decided to do is write one project and research the next. Right now, I’m getting ready to write The Goetic High and researching The Lion and the Hare. Once I’ve got that finished, I’ll work on writing The Lion and the Hare and start research on Two Cities. And so on.
In a way, I don’t know how potential publishers will deal with me. I have no real interest in limiting my writing to a single genre or subgenre. My first novel is contemporary fantasy, the next (maybe series) is secondary world, the third is hard science fantasy (I think), etc. If I go with a traditional publishing model, I hope I can get away with just using my own name rather than a silly amount of pen names.
Despite my exhaustion with the research (and the frustration of over using interlibrary loan), I’m having a blast with this.
Yesterday, I wanted to wrote a blog post discussing my idea that genre popularity comes and goes in cycles. For example, sword and sorcery and space opera cycle in and out about every twenty or thirty years. This would be in contrast to an article in Fantasy Faction that argued that urban fantasy is more like Neanderthals. I really had issues with the article (and to be honest, I have some issues with Fantasy Faction in general). But, I don’t know nearly enough about Neanderthals to determine whether or not the whole premise is flawed. And I hate putting my foot in my mouth.
Not only do I not know enough about Neanderthals, but I also need more facts to back me up on my own premise. How does one determine which genres are in and which are out? How do I weed out my own (and individual critical) bias?
Are there hard numbers? What should I do about passionate fandoms? (Sword and sorcery has a very passionate fanbase, when can I say “this particular time is an upswing, a surge in popularity”?) Can genres die or do they recede, awaiting a new take, a new cultural climate?
I don’t know. And if I write about it, I really want to do the research.
Which is why I’m largely reluctant to do “research” blog posts. Yes, I’ve done some individual work analysis that doesn’t require research and sourcing, but I’m always wary about those posts. And I’d love criticism of those pieces. Did I get my analysis of Cowboy Bebop right? Am I being too occidental, too American in my criticism of Naruto? Have I missed the point about Glee and Harry Potter? I hope not, but I’m always concerned about getting it wrong. Spectacularly wrong.
And I have been wrong before. I took a class on modern American poetry and we were studying William Carlos Williams. The class was assigned to explicate a poem of Williams. I don’t remember the poem now, but I do remember getting the poem wrong. So very wrong. It was almost funny how badly I missed everything.
I don’t want to make that mistake. Either in doing poor research or in reading badly.
Part of why I’m questioning myself, not that I don’t always do it, is because I’m annoyed with myself.
For one thing, in my post about my concerns about Harry Potter before finally reading the damn books, I neglected to bring up race as an issue. Are the five African Briton, two Indian Briton, and one Chinese Briton enough? Are their roles big enough to pass muster? With who?
I also read an inspiring interview with George R.R. Martin over at I09 this morning. Damn, so much food for thought. I think I may have to rethink some of my positions. And I also have tons to think about after a blog post on Orbit by Brent Weeks. Maybe I should give him another look?
Today so far has made me rethink a lot of my own preconceptions. I need to think about this. And figure things out on my own. Now, it’s back to research and writing.
I’m going to add Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to the list of books I’m looking for at Golden’s Book Exchange on Saturday. And maybe I’ll add Lev Grossman’s The Magicians to the list (my failed attempts to read that damn novel has become a running joke). At the moment, I have both books (along with Life of Pi and Air Gear vol. 1) checked out from the library. Hell, I’m trying to read TTSS right now. But I’m going to have to take a break from reading it because I have way too much research to do to take the time for pleasure reading.
I blame myself. I hoard library books. At the moment, I have thirteen out. And I’ve got another seven waiting for pickup. Three of which are interlibrary loans that I can only have for three weeks. (Though I am thrilled that they came so quickly)
So, while I want to finish TTSS (and even The Magicians), I’ve already renewed them once (which is the limit). So, I will just have to buy the damn books and read them when I get the time.
To weasel out of my own problem, the film adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is still fresh in my mind. And damn, that was a great movie. Blew Skyfall out of the water. (And that opens up a whole other can of worms)
But I’m also wildly excited to start the research process. I can’t wait to learn new information about the medieval period. I’m thrilled to see where all of this research will lead to in my next project.
I’ve already learned so much about village life in mid fourteenth century England that I never knew. And an equal amount about town life. This is freaking gold! Especially given that my epic fantasy historcisim (that sounds terrible) will deal as much with the peasantry as it will with mighty lords. I can’t wait to discover more!
I’m actually more thrilled than disappointed.
Looking over this post, I’ve noticed two avenues for future posts. Looking at the old adage that the book is better than the adaptation. And discussing some of my writing schedule, without giving too much away.
During my “31 Days of Post,” I wrote about my conflicted thoughts about fanfiction. My feelings on the subject remains, ultimately, the same. But the more I think about fanfiction, the more I’m concerned about what it can do to young writers who wish to write professionally.
Here is an example. This is a Glee fanfiction. Kurt Hummel’s birthday is after Valentine’s Day. Maybe even a month past. The AU element of the piece (all fanfiction by its very nature is AU) is that Burt actually does favor Finn and they go to a football game the same day as Kurt’s birthday. And they left without Kurt. Add in the whole thing with Blaine and Rachel, and Kurt runs off to France to live with his wealthy maternal grandmother. And he meets Sebastian.
Now, there is a huge issue with the premise. If Kurt’s birthday is in March, the NFL season is over. But basketball season is on (and Cleveland really would work better), or maybe early baseball season.
Clearly, the fanfic writer (I won’t use her username) did not do her research. Which may explain why certain core plot elements are never explored. . .
Research, or the failure to do it, is one of my pet peeves when it comes to writing. And this includes fanfiction.
Just because you (the fanfic writer) are using a preexisting intellectual property does not mean that you can let your imagination loose without doing the research. You need to do it yourself. Otherwise your work will look shoddy. Even if your writing is above average.
If your version of Kurt Hummel is more in the fashion industry, do the research.
If your Dursleys abandoned Harry Potter rather than take him in, find out what the contemporary alternatives to orphanages are (given that they have fallen out of favor for the last thirty or forty years).
I could go on and on. But I won’t.
Because I’ve got game seven to watch. Go Spurs!
I’ve been thinking a lot about research lately. Largely because I’m in the research phase for several projects.
One problem with research is knowing when there is too much. Has looking for more and more information and sources usurped actually writing?
Another problem is recognizing when one needs to do research. This is, I think, especially true when it comes to more contemporary set works.
Writing a secondary fantasy world pretty much points to various research topics. Take my first epic fantasy idea. I need to research Gudit. I need to research Boadicaea. I need to research England in the 1380s. Etc. I know what I lack. I know what I need to search for.
But the other project I’m working on, an urban and contemporary fantasy, is significantly more difficult figure out what I don’t know (and need to know). Where is the setting? What specific quirks do I not know? Do I need to research various professions? And the closer to home, the harder it gets. Because I know where I live, don’t I?
Every interesting conundrum, yes?
But this, really, only covers specific researches. Not the everyday researches that we, as writers, are subconsciously aware of.
Example: I was doing some readings on Texas history. I came across an article that explored West Texas’s role in the Civil War. And boom, that might form the inspiration of a space opera or an epic fantasy (depends if I stick to my two epic fantasy rule). That was an awesome experience. And I’ve had many of those.
Research is fun. But one must be cautious.
I would like to say more. But my desk chair broke, so I’m writing this in a very uncomfortable position. Oh, my back!
It is so uncomfortable that I couldn’t write a review of Avengers vs. X-Men. Not that I have much nice to say about Marvel’s event last year. . .
Reading Bryan Thomas Schmidt’s blog the other day, I began to think more about researching. How extensive does one need to be? How experiential? Can the research be minimal or does it have to be on the level of a lay doctorate? In reading a lot of writing advice sites, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is likely up to the reader (as much of the advice is colored by the experience of the writers themselves). In the end, I think, the amount of research is up to the writer. There is no universal “goldilocks” level of research.
But, I do think certain genres in speculative fiction require more depth in the research compared to others. I think Schmidt is right that hard science fiction demands doing the research, of being as well informed as possible on the science of today and extrapolating out. I also think that urban fantasy needs quite a bit of research (at least to get the setting right- though it probably helps to actually live in the city one writes about). Of course, the other major fantasy genre that demands getting it right is historical fantasy. While I question if getting the world and details absolutely right is absolutely necessary for the “suspension of disbelief,” I do think taking the time to get it right is important. It reveals a commitment to the writing, a commitment to getting it right.
Now, how much research does a constructed world fantasy need? That is a tricky one. I would say as much as the writer wants to put in it for the world building. But at the same time, you don’t need to have every little thing planned out. I mean George R. R. Martin only created a few words of Valyrian and Dothraki, but the politics of Westeros is excellently well done. Compare to Tolkien who has several immense constructed languages, but the politics of Middle Earth are rather shoddily sketched in, if you ask me.
The amount of world building and research in constructed world fantasy is, I think, up to the writer. Do what feels best for the story, and play to your own strengths as a researcher. If you are better at anthropology, do that. If you are a stronger historian, do that. You get the idea. Just because someone else argues that a world building should be this way or that way does not mean that they are right.
Moving on to realism. I read a post yesterday by A. Lee Martinez complaining about the usage of adult languages (and the portrayal of Catwoman, period) in Arkham City. His argument got me to thinking about my own attitudes towards more “mature” content in fantasy. I am beginning to wonder if it is necessarily appropriate to use “realism” as a defense against critics who desire the tamer works of yesterday (and today).
Perhaps now is a good time to define the realism defense. The realism defense is an argument that posits the acceptability of including objectionable or mature content into genres that have, until recently, been seen as exclusively for children or young adults. Therefore, it is likely that the recent inclusion of mature content is as a means of titillation for older young adults or as a means to maintain an older audience who continue to read the material long after “one is too old” for that material.
So, maybe realism isn’t the best defense. Maybe the best way to go about it is to argue that adding mature or arguably objectionable content is two fold: to acknowledge that this work is aimed at older consumers and to acknowledge that the work at present is a reaction to the old sugar coated reality of the genre.
Batman is a fantasy whether he is the goofy Adam West or the hyper serious Christian Bale. The Joker can be just a clown prince of silly crime or a truly terrifying and psychotic monster, he is still a fantasy either way. Indeed, the darker Batman (and comics in general) of today is a direct result, I think, of being bottled up by the comics code for decades.
In a similar way, I think that fantasy is undergoing a similar process. Some older fantasy readers don’t want to read sugar coated idylls of the Shire. They want the nasty, the brutish world of Earwa.
Damn, I did not want this post to be so long. Another thing on research: don’t let it consume you! Find a point and stop, write the story, and do further research in the editing phase. You don’t want to have a story gestating for a decade or more doing research. By that token, you might as well write a dissertation on the subject.