I used to Hate research. Yes, that’s Hate with a capital “H.” It started in high school, when I was a lackluster student forced to write a ten-page research paper. (Just to be obstinate, I chose “Atlantis” as my topic – great idea, right?) When I went to college, I dreaded the research. Freshman year, it was horrible. I couldn’t stand it. But then I started taking Russian lit and anthropology classes, and somewhere along the way I stopped Hating research. I still didn’t like it, but I stopped hating it. And I learned something very important: to write well, research well.
I put a lot of time and effort into my research once I learned that. And guess what! My paper grades (which admittedly had not been bad) got better. I was able to better participate in class discussions – which was also a plus since at small, liberal arts schools participation is a huge part of the grade. I hate to say it, but learning how to research made me a better student.
You might be asking what this has to do with writing fantasy (I did go on a bit of a tangent there). Well I’ll tell you: writing fantasy requires research. I have to know what grows in certain climates, what types of ships were (historically) used for which purpose, and so much more. See, if we writers make a mistake on something, it reduces our credibility and our readers might just put the book down. I know I have. I repeat: to write well, research well.
I usually start my research by talking to my mom. She brings up points I would never have thought about. For instance: in the sequel to the novel I am currently editing, my main characters end up in a small, self-sufficient village on the coast. It’s a fishing village, easy-peasy I’m done, right? NO! I talked to my mom because I was excited about this village. She asked about the bread.
Bread? Well, they just eat regular bread, don’t they?
She asked about where their clothes come from (I did say that they were self-sufficient, after all). Okay, so I could figure out bread and clothes. But my mom wasn’t done with questions. How do they catch the fish? With nets, of course! But what are the nets made of? Good question. Rope, maybe. Do they only eat fish, or do they have chickens or rabbits?
I was determined to find answers. So I started my research. I started with “types of bread” and found myself on Wikipedia (bane of academic research, but great for everything else!). I know there are more types of bread than are listed there, but I came across one that really startled me. Hemp bread. Really? Hemp bread? Of course I clicked on it. Who wouldn’t? And there I found an answer to half of my mom’s questions, because hemp is a very versatile plant. It can be used for food, clothing, and cord among many other things. Well that takes care of three issues in one!
Needless to say, I don’t hate research anymore. Almost every day I’m online looking something else up because I get to a place in my editing and think “hey, I don’t actually know anything about that.” The ships are the worst (I’m still not sure I know anything about sailing across an ocean on a sailing ship…) but a lot of things take me into interesting places and I learn interesting things. And the more I develop the World around my characters, the more I research, and the more I learn. And my writing gets better. And I can chat with people about crazy things that they probably never even thought about – like making your own ink.
My point in this is that when writing, you’ve got to think about everything, not just the surface layer of “it’s a fishing village.” Because even fisher-people eat bread.
Take care, fellow travelers.