The Wednesday Writer's Corner: How Important is Research?
One of the most common questions that budding writers ask JC or me is, “Do you do a great deal of research for your books?” The short answer is, “Yes and no.” We’ve purchased and read a ridiculous amount of books in the last ten years . . . on vampires, medieval fortresses, Eastern European myths, etc, but for the most part this research has proven to be a “jumping off point” for the actual stories we end up writing.
“How does that work?” you ask.
So, here goes . . .
1) Inspiration for Story Ideas
Research into myth and legend can be a wonderful way to generate story ideas. For the purposes of this post, I’m going to avoid Internet research (which would be a topic for a different post) and just focus on the books we’ve used. Two books we’ve leaned upon heavily are Matthew Bunson’s The Vampire Encyclopedia and Paul Barber’s Vampires, Burial, and Death.
One evening, back in early 2000, I was reading through Bunson’s book for fun, and I came across the entry for “Dhampir.” The beginning of the definition read, “The name given by Slavonic gypsies to the child of a vampire.” That caught my attention. I went on to read how dhampirs were believed to be skilled in detecting and destroying vampires. Apparently, charlatans in medieval Serbia and Yugoslavia would pretend to be “dhampirs” and convince villagers that their village was beset by a vampire. The “dhampir” would then stage an elaborate show to rid the village of its vampire—and charge quite a fee for the service.
I read this entire entry aloud to JC, and he just stared at me for a minute, and then we started talking. That concept was just too good to leave alone. Questions began flying. “What if we make the charlatan dhampir a woman?” “What if she really is a dhampir and just doesn’t know it when the story begins?”
So, we “got” the basic idea for our story by doing research, but then it branched off into our own creation.
I know many of you are just going to groan at this, but Time Life published a series sometime in the early 1980s called The Enchanted World. The various book in the series have titles like Night Creatures, Ghosts, Spells and Bindings, Magical Beasts, and Giants and Ogres. These books are not deep (smiles), but I have to tell you, they are awesome for generating story ideas. The one on ghosts alone is priceless. Of course, you don’t want to just “copy” something and add a few new frills, but these books provide an amazing wealth of possibilities for creatures or beings to play around with.
2) Political Systems
If you’re writing a big fantasy novel, most of your readers are going to care about the political system—even if you only pay it lip service. In some of the Noble Dead books, the political system is intricate to the plot, and in some, it’s merely a backdrop. But remember that our canvas is large, and our characters are traveling between countries (and later between continents), so each country must have its own system. You can rely on almost any decent history text to get an idea for how historical systems might work in your own world. We’ve used a variety of systems from a straight monarchy . . . to a monarchy combined with a powerful council of businessmen . . . to warlords fighting over territories, etc.
3) Smaller Details for Fantasy Worlds
Again, the idea here is do research in your area of interest and then feel free to simply use it as a springboard. But of course there are areas where you want to adhere to “fact” in your story, such as how far a person or a horse can travel in a day. For Child of a Dead God, JC and I put a lot of research into how the ballistae would work for the sea battle we mapped out.
But for those of you who’ve read the Noble Dead Saga, you know we also use castles and keeps in almost every book
If you’re going to be using castles at all, there is one book that I cannot recommend enough: The Medieval Fortress: Castles, Forts, and Walled Cities of the Middle Ages by J.E. Kaufmann and H.W. Kaufmann. I think we would be lost without this book. There are diagrams and schematics of castles and detailed discussion of weapons throughout this book. JC designed the layout of the sages’ guild in Calm Seatt after examining a typical squat, four-towered keep in this book.
4) Details for Fantasy Stories Written in Earth’s History
Now, I’ve been focusing on conducting research for a fantasy world, but the rules will change if you set your story in our own Earth’s history. Juliet Marillier has a wonderful fantasy series set in old Ireland, and so her research would be used in a different fashion from what you’d do in a world you created yourself.
But if you’re writing historical fantasy in Earth’s history, you need to know “when” things actually happened. In this case, you have to have your facts straight—unless you’re writing an alternate history.
For example, I was doing a vampire short story set in the twelfth century, and I wrote a “hearth” into a fortress, and then I paused and wondered, “How soon did the concept of a fireplace with any type of chimney come into play?” Of course after doing minimal research, I ended up re-writing that section of the story.
For The Vampire Memories series, I had some characters take a train from the east coast of America to San Francisco in 1862. I woke up in the middle of the night and realized the track hadn’t been completed yet. I did some checking, and it wasn’t completely ready for use until 1870 . . . so again, I had to alter my time line. Trust me, someone will notice those details.
So, I guess my final advice here would be that in creating your own world, do the research and then use it as a “springboard.” This takes more creativity, but fewer adherences to historical fact. In writing historical fantasy (set in the past of our world), know your facts. This takes less creativity, but some serious research and constant questioning of oneself.
Onward! Happy writing.