Friday, August 30, 2013
Friday Tidbits: Research and the Fantasy Novel--Part 1
Actually, no. Not if you want to create a world with a sense of authenticity behind it. Even the most fantastic of worlds require a bit of research and preparation before the fun of overt creativity begins.
For me, research is a bit of an eclectic business at best. Oh, don't get me wrong! I take it seriously enough. But it's hard to know, when concocting a tale of dragons, unicorns, interlinked worlds, etc. what exactly to research. So I tend to do it on an as-it-comes-up basis.
Here are some things that I have found myself stopping mid-scene to research and which might, depending on your personality and creative preferences, be worth looking into before sitting down to the story proper.
1. What do my characters eat? How do they eat it? Make certain the culture you're establishing has the wherewithal to create or barter for whatever utensils or flatware are in use. How is the food prepared? What sorts of spices are available for flavor? Do they have salt? Even if you don't end up including all of these details in the manuscript (I don't believe I ever have!), knowing the answers for yourself helps to create a groundwork for believability.
2. What do my characters wear? What sorts of fibers would go into cloth-weaving? Or do they (as with Starflower's people) wear skins? Might be helpful, in that case, to research tanning, at least a smidge. What sorts of undergarments were they likely to have? Outer garments? Ornamentation? Again, these are not details that need to be (or even should be) included in exhaustive detail. But they are good to know.
Similarly, have an idea about hair styles. Depending on the culture, style of hair can denote a number of important facts concerning rank and position or even personality. Look at Leta, who wasn't even permitted to show her hair. Or Una, whose messy braid became a bit of a trademark, demonstrating a flare for rebellion in her spirit. My current heroine wears different hairstyles depending on the specific character she is portraying to the world at large, and the difference between a twist and a braid can be of great importance.
Note: Hair color is not as important a detail as hair style. Hair color is a matter of genetics; hair style is a matter of culture.
3. Forms of transportation. Some of you horsewomen will have a much easier time over this than the rest of us. I, for one, have had just enough experience with horses (riding lessons when I was 7 and 8. Did you know they say that it takes three falls to make a rider? I've had two. So I'm no rider.) to know that I know nothing about them. It is rare that you'll find any of my characters on horseback. I just don't feel as though I can write them authentically. In my current work-in-progress, I avoided the issue of horses by sticking my heroine and company on a big plodding mule and a cluster of shaggy donkeys. (Not that I know anything more about mules and donkeys . . . it's just become a point of principle!)
I did have to research the mules and donkeys, familiarize myself with some of the various breeds, basic care, temperaments, etc. My mother (who is a horsewoman) is a good source of information. If nothing else, she serves to remind me that horses (donkeys and mules) are not furry bicycles and should not be treated as such.
There are other forms of transportation to be considered. A working knowledge of carriages, curricles, coaches and the like is helpful. What it costs to own and maintain them, how many men are needed to service them, etc. Figure out if yours is a society that even has the ability to make certain types of carriages or carts and, if not, what they would have instead. Then discover whether or not your characters are affluent enough to own them.
Seriously, even if you stick your characters on a magic carpet, it's worth it to do the research on carpet-making, the history of the magic carpet legends, and so forth. It's all about creating a sense of authenticity. You don't have to be an authority . . . but you should be able to drop just enough information here and there that you sound like one.
4. Lighting. What sorts of light sources are available to your characters? Oil lamps? Gas lamps? Torches? Candles? What sorts of candles? Rushes? Paper lanterns? Again, make certain your setting has the proper resources to provide for the types of light sources used. It's amazing what a difference this simple research can make to the authenticity of a scene. I spent time researching various types of candles and their makings when I wrote Dragonwitch. For my current novel, I researched earthenware lamps and paper lanterns.
Okay, those are the first few basic things that come to mind. But there are tons of other little things that can crop up depending on the story. With Dragonwitch, I researched chronicling arts, book-binding, ink-making, calligraphy, parchment-making etc. I researched various types of ovens that would be available in those days (though I ended up deleting the scenes that involved this research). I researched cloth-making and encaustic tile-making, and none of that information ended up in the manuscript, but it simply let me know whether the inclusion of certain cloths or encaustic tiles was appropriate for my time period.
In my current manuscript-in-progress I spent some time researching poisons in general, gold leaf poisoning in specific. Now there is some interesting (and gruesome) reading!
All of this is very as-you-come-to-it research. I'll post next week on some of the broader-scale research I have done in preparation for writing a fantasy novel.
So what about you? What kind of research have you done for your various projects? Come upon any interesting little tidbits recently? What are some basics you think would be helpful to research to create a realistic world?