How to Research a Fantasy Novel

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How to Research a Fantasy Novel

Whenever I tell writers of non-fiction or modern fiction that I’m writing a fantasy novel, the usual reaction is, “Awesome. You get to make everything up. No research for you!” At this point, I usually laugh until I fall over. It’s a lovely fairy tale that fantasy writers don’t have to research, one that many of us wish to be true. But the sad truth is, fantasies do require research. In some cases, even more research than a novel set in the modern world, or in an unaltered period of history.

Why? How can that be?

Here’s the deal: A believable fantasy has to hold up to the scrutiny of readers. In order for readers to suspend disbelief, at least some of the work has to hang on a framework of things that are familiar to us. Sure, you get to make stuff up, but if you want people to believe it and to immerse themselves in your world, you have to give them something to relate to. You can have all the pink-polka-dotted monsters you want, and they can live in a world with no air, no gravity, and no color other than shades of pink. But… If you want readers to believe in them and their world, you have to have something believable. That’s where research comes in.

Maybe these pink monsters don’t breathe like humans. Okay, fine. You’d better research alternative lifeforms that don’t require oxygen. If they live in a world without gravity, how do they propel themselves around the world, or interact with other objects? Does everything just float around? Better research space travel and find out how astronauts survive. This is a kind of silly example, but hopefully you get my point: Fantasy, no matter ho far-fetched, needs to have some believable, understandable components underpinning it if you expect readers to buy in to what you’re creating. And that believability comes from research.

So from hard-won experience, I give you my tips on how to research a fantasy novel. 

Research the things that are real.

Most fantasies contain some elements that are real. It may be a location, a famous person, an object, or a historical time period. If you’re using things that actually exist (or existed), research them so you can portray them accurately. This is actually the easiest research you’ll likely do, because such information is readily available.

Research your weird combinations.

Maybe your fantasy requires that certain real objects or places be combined into something new. For example, perhaps you’re creating a weapon that is some variation of a sword, a mace, and a rubber band shooter (just spitballing, here…). For best effect, you should research and understand how all three “real” elements look and work, and then figure out how they would combine to make your ideal weapon.

If you’re creating a take on mythology or folklore, study the originals.

When you write fantasy using already established mythology or folklore, as I did with Broken Fate, you get to take a lot of liberties with the source material. But you still have to adhere to the basics, unless you want students of the originals to revolt against you. For example, Hades is the god of the Underworld. He’s been that way ever since the Greeks first wrote the stories. I can’t make him the sun god just because I feel like it, not if I expect people familiar with mythology to deal with it. Now, maybe I could make him the sun god if I had a good reason, but I’d have to convey why he went from being the god of the Underworld to the sun god. Otherwise, people would toss the book aside and say, “Pfft. She doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” (They may have done that, anyway, but I digress.)

Study related cultures so you can craft believable values, observances, and rituals (and avoid offending anyone).

If you’re basing your fantasy on real-world cultures, ancient or modern, research what makes them tick. How do they observe death, for example? Or birthdays? What values are most important to these people? What traditions are important? This is important not only for making your work believable, but for avoiding offense. The days of just blindly cherry-picking bits and pieces from a culture and slapping it into a “fantasy culture” are long gone. Cultural approbation is a thing and you need to avoid it. Yes, even in fantasy.

Learn all you can about world building.

Okay, so it’s not “research” the traditional sense, but to write fantasy well, you have to be able to craft believable worlds. This means setting up rules for how and why everything and everyone in your world operates the way they do. Ideally, these rules are also based in some form of reality. There are tons of books on the subject of world building, and classes, as well. Also you can learn a lot from reading the work of other fantasy authors and inspecting what works for them and what doesn’t. Just don’t cheap out on your world building. Remember that everything has to happen for a reason, and according to rules. Figure out and understand your rules and then stick to them.

Take your research offline.

Yes, Google is your friend and Wikipedia is your lifeline. But these are not the only (or even best) ways to get information. Sure, they make a good starting point. Results on these sites can steer you toward larger questions and more resources. But if you start and stop with the easy online references, you’re cheating yourself and your readers. A fuller understanding of your topic will come if you read actual books on the subject, travel to places if possible, talk to humans who know the things you want to know, and look at actual objects in museums or cultural centers. Online is easy, but it tends to be shallow. Swim in the deeper end of the pool by going offline.

Know your science.

No, you don’t have to write hard sci-fi like The Martian in order to use science in your work. Science underpins everything from potion-making, to how magic might work, to how those pink-polka-dotted monsters eat. You don’t have to master chemistry, physics, or biology. But if you’re going to craft people, animals, or places that break the known laws, it’s helpful to know how those laws might be believably broken.

Know your history.

Even if you’re not writing about “real” places or people, history will still inform your work. (And if you are writing about a real time period, you’ll need to know its history well.) Understanding how empires rise and fall, the various forms of government, how religions or ideologies develop and alter life for better and worse, why wars are fought, etc. may be important to your work. You may not be basing your work during World War I, for example, but understanding how conflicts grow into wars is helpful if your book involves a war. You don’t have to know everything about all of history. That would be nuts. But it helps to find “real” historical periods that share elements of your creation and then understand the commonalities.

At times you’ll feel like you’re wasting time. A lot of your research won’t make it into the finished product. (At least it’d better not. That would be some serious info-dumping.) But it will inform your work and make it more believable. You and your readers will know that you took the time to craft a fantasy that works on every level. Plus, you get the fun of learning new things, and laughing at people who think fantasy writers just make it all up.

(Image courtesy of thommas68)

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