So last week I discussed some small-scale, detail-oriented research I have found to be important while creating a believable fantasy world. This week, I'll talk a little about some of the BIG-scale research I have done, in the hopes that you might find some helpful ideas. As always, these are things which have worked for me, and they very well might not work for you at all. But they're worth considering!
1. Magic. I have a copy of Frazer's The Golden Bough, which I have found very helpful and inspiring over the years. It is full of interesting information on various religious beliefs, superstitions, festivals and so forth throughout the history of the world. The beliefs about magic can be just as useful as any sparkly-enchantment magic I might ever invent on my own. There are some really horrifying moments in this book, but it is all interesting. It's good, if you're planning to pursue fantasy, to have a basic grounding in our-world perspectives on magic, superstition, and the otherworld. It includes ideas such as the "priest king," the "king for a day," the "white goddess," rites of spring and winter, beliefs concerning trees, and so many more. It's both dark and very dry by turns, but I've found it incredibly useful when attempting to create a believable world.
(Note: this is not a book about the practice of witchcraft or anything of that nature. It is a scholarly text on historical beliefs and practices.)
2. Poetry . . . particularly Shakespeare. I never read as much poetry as I should, but there are a wealth of themes and archetypes to be found among the poets, not to mention wonderful images of Faerie and otherworldy spirits. No one beats Shakespeare for his wonderful depictions of Faerie. But there are so many others, including Christina Rossetti (Goblin Market), Percy Shelley (Queen Mab: A Philosophical Poem), Tennyson (The Splendor Falls . . . The Lady of Shallot), and more. Also a familiarity with some of the old ballads (Tam Lin comes to mind) can be very helpful. I have tried to memorize a number of fairy-related poems and monologues so that even the rhythms and cadences of the other world are in my brain, ready to use.
3. History. The time period and culture of the world you're creating will determine what sorts of history books you want to pick up. For instance, the novel I am currently writing is set in my Noorhitam Empire, which is loosely Asian-based. So, before beginning this novel, I read several books and numerous articles on old Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Malaysian, Thai, and Cambodian cultures, using bits and pieces of what I learned to create a culture and variety of sub-cultures all my own. The point is not to recreate our history, but to find ways to make your own more authentic and believable. I have found particularly useful the study of caste systems, political structures (where does the power truly lie? With the emperor? His lords? His priests? His queen?), inheritance practices, the blending of cultures after invasions, the roles of women, the middle classes, the peasant classes, sources of revenue . . . that's just to name a few off the top of my head! (No one said research was easy . . . but it can be fascinating, depending on your sources.)
4. Have a healthy understanding of some basic literary archetypes, their origins, and their roles in history and literature. An author who does this just brilliantly (in my opinion) is Sir Terry Pratchett. His use of the "Maiden, Mother, and Crone" archetype is wonderful. Also his understanding of traditional Woman's Magic (natural and earth-bound) versus Men's Magic (scholarly and cerebral). Of course, in his world, the magic actually works! But the reason it feels so believable is because he based it off of established literary archetypes. It's wonderful.
There are dozens and dozens of archetypes to choose from, of course. You could spend a lifetime studying them all and coming up with new ways to include them in your manuscripts.
Anyway, those are some of the broad-scale forms of research I have pursued (and continue to pursue) for my fantasy novels. I'm sure there are others which I am forgetting at the moment, but I am hungry, and my husband is making some pretty amazing-smelling hot sandwiches, so my concentration is not what it might be . . . .
What about you? What sorts of broad-scale research have you done for your writing? Anything you'd like to add to my list? (Remember, this is for broad-scale, not details . . . the details were last week.)
Hmmm...I like reading other fantasy books similar to the setting, time period, and people. But history is definitely a great source to learn about culture. I'm going to have to research there for several of my novels.
This was really helpful, Anne Elisabeth. I'm going to have to look into The Golden Bough; it sounds very, very helpful!
You have no idea how much I appreciate this blog post. I was just tearing my hair out over the 'research for my fantasy' problem, and your article turned up on my blog feed! God is good. :)
How to research for writing fiction is not addressed often enough in how-to-write books. IMHO. It is very different to researching for non-fiction.
I agree with the #3!
Reading history is fun just so, but when you read it with eyes open for story ideas the enjoyment doubles, triples even!
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