All writers face a huge challenge when they embark on a novel—research. Love stories, mysteries, adventure novels, they all have at least some research behind them. For those writers who work in worlds that are a little—or a lot—removed from everyday life, research can prove to be tricky. Science fiction, fantasy and paranormal novels pose interesting questions. Should I research? If so, how much should I research?
The answer to the first is easy. Yes. Oh, yes, yes, yes!!! Your world, whatever it is, needs a framework, and research is the beginning of the frame.
How much research? Now that’s tricky. The answer is “enough”. How much is enough? I tend to err on the side of too much. I might not ever use that lovely tidbit I discovered about some archaeological find in Northern Europe and how it ties into my mythology. Or I learn more than is really needed about the physics of how my spaceships might travel though the void (as my poor ex-physics professor can attest). I need to know these things for me to make the world whole. The point to all the work is to make your worlds come alive for your readers. To let your characters move in a world founded on solid bedrock and not on shifting sand.
There is always the issue that there is someone out there who is a specialist in something you are writing about and will find a major flaw and pick at it—something a tiny bit of research would have fixed. On a TV show I watch, the characters spotted wormwood on a wall. All I could think was “you’d think a television production office would have a good enough research team to know that vine is NOT wormwood.” It still drives me nuts because the amount of effort it would have taken to get it right would have been so small.
Am I being too picky? Maybe. The problem is I am not the only one who is that nit-picky.
So, you’ve done your research, you know your history, or physics or the natural history of the lost species of the somethingasaurus—now what? Now you can settle into writing, referring to your research when needed. When you choose to deviate from the facts, you are making a conscious choice and one you can point to and say it was deliberate. Knowing your world and the framework it is built on is key in creating believability. Just don’t go overboard. I tend to find myself removing pages of really exciting research (to me) from stories because they really aren’t needed for the story, I just loved those little tidbits so much.
I still sneak a few in, and that’s the fun of it, the final pay-off of the research. Adding in one little thing that is off-the-wall but just so delicious it has to be there—and your readers will love you for it.
I love fantasy. It was something that caught my imagination when I was young and, with science fiction, made up the bulk of my reading for many years. Back then, days in the park were full of dragons and knights, dark wizards and heroic journeys. Of course, living in the Pacific Northwest, with its forested areas close to the city, made for a perfect setting because, let’s face it—fantasy happened out there. What do I mean? Fantasy always had a medieval setting, forests and castles, bogs and moors, the cityscape was completely removed from that world. Even C.S. Lewis moved from this world into another. The fantastic just doesn’t happen in a world ruled by science, a world full of cars and airplanes, coffee and computers.
There seem to be vampires and werewolves popping up everywhere. Angst-ridden teens write long sighing love poems and plucky (or hard-boiled) detectives hunt down the denizens of the night. Oh, there might be more than a vampire or two out there, but still it is a world that is primarily paranormal rather than one of fantasy. Somehow we have come through the ages with our belief that the undead (and a few other things) still walk amongst us, but other things were just figments of our ancestors’ superstitious imaginings and have no place in a modern setting.
And we are back at the why in the whole equation.
What is it that keeps us from diving headlong into that world of epic fantasy—only in today’s world? As I sit here mulling the question, I wonder if it’s one better answered by a cultural psychologist. It is a rather interesting idea, why do we readily accept one and not the other?
I have often wondered why those things fell away. Once the world was full of monsters, creatures of light and dark, dragons coursing through the sky, a physical reality that could be altered by a magical presence. Is it a question of rationality? Humanity has grown up, and as adults we no longer need childish things. We see only the facts of the world, the grind of daily life and if something of the other world should cross our path it is a creature of passion or violence—symbolic of a desire to recapture a lost part of ourselves. Other than that, it is dismissed.
But is it gone?
There is a line in the Merlin books by Mary Stewart, where he (Merlin) speaks of the old gods, and how they are still there in the hollow hills, under the ground, in the streams and wells, just no longer acknowledged. They wait, forgotten, until they are remembered again. It’s an elegant notion, and one I think applies to the idea of the elements of fantasy in the modern world. They are all out there. In the forests, the parks, the dark canyons of the wilds and the deep shadows of the cities. All waiting until we see them again.
It’s not childish, I think, to see a dragon lurking in the clouds, or find the fae in the dappled light of a forest grove. With the eye of science firmly in hand, we are unwilling to believe and let these aspects become part of out world. I think it’s the tendency to believe that rationality conquers all. The problem is—we really don’t believe that. Which is why vampires and werewolves still creep into the urban world.
The time has come to embrace it all. Bring fantasy into the modern world—if a vampire can stalk downtown, a dragon can fly overhead. The challenge is to create the world in such a way that the reader can willingly dive into this reality and can accept that their next walk in the park may be filled with something magical, something out of the depths of myth, something truly epic.
After a discussion with a friend yesterday, I’ve been thinking about world building a lot. It’s the single most vital thing we do when we embark on a novel (or story or film). It is that first vital step that leads to everything else. If you don’t have a solid world, where can your characters, no matter how well drawn, exist?
Of course, with world building comes a host of problems. Once the world is built, if you play fair, you can’t decide to alter it because it has become inconvenient. It seems obvious, but it’s hard to do. I know that I have run flat up against some of the rules I created in the world of the Custodes Noctis and have spent some time wondering if I could ethically (well for me) just tweak the world a bit.
But then, that’s cheating.
I’ve created this world, and as much as I can’t change the world I live in to conveniently work for me—if I could I would own a Ferrari or Bugatti, my house would overlook the sea and I would not have to get up to go to work every day. Sadly, I can’t do that, and in all fairness doing it in a place I have created through writing is just the same. It’s cheating myself and more importantly my readers. It’s something you always have to consider when setting out, and as I look forward to different worlds and different series, I am eying the underlying structure of those worlds very carefully, because once in place, I can’t move them.
And I have to admit, I have a problem with writers that do just change things when they become inconvenient. It is cheating. You can’t have a world that (for a bizarre example) the sun rises in the west and all of a sudden go “well, that’s not working” and flipflop it without some reason, and some major event that actually alters the structure of the world. Just changing it is laziness, cheating, and it’s breaking every rule in the, pardon the expression, book.
I have been a writing all my life and have been published in newspapers, magazines and books. Recently, I have started working with writers helping them to learn to love their writing, and how we, as writers can learn from musicians and their techniques.