Friday, August 30, 2013

Friday Tidbits: Research and the Fantasy Novel--Part 1

So, when you write a fantasy novel, you just make stuff up. Right?

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?

11 comments:

Jenny Freitag said...

Challenge excepted. I will compose and answer my ideas swept off the threshing floor of my brain.

Food and clothing, I agree, are some of the fundamental building-blocks of people groups. How do we class people, if not by their types of food and traditional dress? An absolute essential to research. And then the odds and ends, like candles! One doesn't usually think of that, but it is the details which make a story believable. I've found that not everyone has the natural bent to looking at the details, and it is something you have to cultivate into habit. But it pays off, that's for certain.

I may very well be following suit on the poison in a novel or two.

Bree Holloway said...

This was very helpful, Anne! I've been finding in writing Psithurism that I need a bit of fleshing out of the world to establish a more feasible atmosphere. I've done research on my clothing and hairstyles, but it looks as though I'm needing some work on the food!

And I am glad you mentioned that knowing the details does not mean you have to put them in. It is rather disorienting when an author breaks from the action to describe how the protagonist got her dress and what it was made of. :/ All in good time!

Kessie said...

All very good points! I'm always trying to learn about their food, because the fantasy standard stew is banned from my writing. No character of mine will ever touch stew.

I'm writing urban fantasy set in Phoenix, AZ, so a lot of research pertains to real life stuff. Is there a municipal airport in Glendale? What's the top speed of a 1990 Mazda Miata? What exactly happens when a drug addict goes into withdrawal? Desert Eagle or Glock? More recently, fueled by that article about gravity waves causing ripples in the fabric of space-time, I've been researching hand looms for a character who weaves tapestries made out of space.

Galadriel said...

While reading a culture book for class, I came across several good points that distinguish a culture--authority vs autonomy, family vs individual--that can be helpful for making sure our characters don't think and act like 21st-century inhabitants.

Clara Darling said...

Lighting is something that I hadn't really thought about. I've got to go do some research on that...

Meredith said...

This was an extremely interesting post. I'd never considered researching lighting. I do a lot of research regarding food. I love exploring how food is such an integral part of all cultures, and how food is so communal. Music is another fun thing to research as well.

You have been studying poisons? Sounds really intriguing!

Bookishqueen said...

My story for the Five Glass Slippers had an insane amount of research. I had to learn about Roman homes, clothes, naming styles, gardens, fountains, symbolism, and family dynamics.

Queen Ali said...

Wow! What a ton of great points! I've always been at a loss on what I really needed to research for my writing and this helped a lot! One of the things I do research though is landscapes. What sort of plants grow in the type of landscape I'm using and if they're useful for something such as herbs, poisons, or even bark from trees for paper.

Caiti Marie said...

Thank you for this post; it lets me know that I am not alone (or insane) when it comes to researching for a fantasy novel. You've also brought up a lot of topics that I need to do some more work on, such as lighting, transportation, and hairstyles. I know how they dress, but— 130,000 words in— and I had yet to think about hairstyles. Oops. I have considered food, and where they get it, but the smaller villages further from the ports in our story are stumping me... They cannot sustain themselves, and they would get so few travelers... Ah, well. I suppose I just need to do more work.

A lot more work.

I always look forward to your Friday Tidbits, and I'm very grateful you take the time to pass on some wisdom to those of us who are still learning. :)

Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

I'm a research as I go writer, too.

Interesting that you posted on this topic. I just wrote a post about worldbuilding in Dragonwitch! ;-)

Becky

Hannah said...

The other day I had to stop and think why a humid jungle and a dry desert city would be fairly close together. Fortunately, I was able to come up with a geographical reason. :)

My next work-in-progress is going to require researching tree-cutting and lumberjacks, putting a medieval twist on things.

For one of my Cinderella stories, I had to sharpen up my sword-fighting scenes. Luckily, I knew just which books to read to throw me into a battle. :)