Le Bon Dieu Est Dans Le Detail

the good God is in the detail

When I tell people that I prefer to write fantasy, I'm always afraid they think I prefer fantasy because I'm lazy and don't want to do historical research.  Yes, I'm lazy, but not too lazy to do research; and fantasy requires an equal amount of research in many though different ways.  History is (usually) already set and done, and you have only to rediscover it: even though there is a lot to go back and uncover, it won't create anything new to upset you.  Fantasy, on the other hand, in which you are literally creating everything as you go, is fraught with the danger of tangles in culture, setting, plot, and many aspects of life which are so essential as to be overlooked by us go unmentioned, being conspicuous in absentia.

Anne Elisabeth introduced this topic this morning in Research and the Fantasy Novel (part one).  If you have read any of her novels, you know that she has a lot of ground to cover and a lot of inconsistencies to avoid.  But on the plus side (I am discovering), writing multiple novels about a general place, time, and people group allows the writer plenty of opportunity to explore and create, and that's a lot of fun.  Definitely worth it.  She mentioned a few details to research such as what do the characters eat (what is available to their board, what dressings do they use, etc.), the ever important what do they wear (I have a deuce of a time envisioning clothing styles, so this is a kind of Achilles heel for me), hair-styles (a television show I watch had a character compelled to have her hair done up in a complicated style which was traditional for royalty in the new country she was ruling over), and also something so simple as how do the characters get about? There are a few other aspects of world-building and research which she mentioned, so feel pushed toward her post to read it!  At the end, she asked
What are some basics you think would be helpful to research to create a realistic world? 
1.  Landscape.  I think once upon a time I mentioned this before.  What does the land look like?  Landscapes impact people groups to immeasurable degrees.  Are they in a lush river-valley, prosperous, with good pastureland and crops?  They are likely to be a peaceable folk.  Do they live in empty steppe-lands, going from pasture to pasture, always on the move?  They are likely to be a patient people, broad-minded, but also wary and defensive.  The land matters.  Pay attention to it.

2.  Religion.  I know I have mentioned this before.  People don't always think about this much beyond cobbling together a rough pagan straw-man which will be quickly knocked down by an obviously superior Christian religion.  But man is a spiritual creature, and while his culture and his place in the world has changed over the millennia, he has held tenaciously to religion.  Whether right or wrong, it is undeniable that religion is very important to a people, and this, too, should not be overlooked.

3.  Language.  This is something I discovered with Adamantine and then Plenilune.  Everyone has an accent: depending on where they come from and what social level they stand at, people talk differently.  This is also a place for contradiction!  Because of where I live and my upbringing, my accent can vary between Southern and Trans-Atlantic.  Carrying this over into my writing, I may have a character like Eikin in Adamantine, whose people are admittedly barbaric: their language tends to be rough-and-ready, blunt and at the same to time the point, but they also couple that with an almost poetic arrangement of the words.  Within Plenilune, the lords and land-owners use a clear, clipped style of speech, the lower tenant and peasant classes speak in an older, heavier form of Franco-English with thees and thous.  At the same time, I've had a few lower-class characters who had made an effort to sharpen their speech, and some of the characters among the lords and land-owners pepper their speech with a "lower" form of language.
What kind of research have you done for your various projects? 
I think the most notable bit of detail I had to put into Adamantine (notable to myself, at least) was the post-rider.  In a big ol' world covered over by a powerful empire, who delivers the mail?  People have to get their Bi-Lo coupons, you know.  So I had to think about it: you might have private messengers, you would have standard short-range mail-stations and local deliveries, and you would also have the military post-riders with specially designated mounts at the inns, making them capable of crossing the entire empire in the space of four days.  I did neglect to look into the casualty statistics of people run down by post-riders every year...

You already know that Gingerune has required a lot of research.  In fact, that process is on-going.  I need to know something like, what are the common building-materials of an ordinary Theran house?  I need to know something which might appear a little more obscure, such as what are the body-types of the people of these areas?  I can spot the difference between a Theran and a Mycenaean face.  Little things: little things matter.
Come upon any interesting little tidbits recently?
Because of the location of Ethandune, I am making a synthesis of a Franco-English culture and a Persian-Arabian one.  This leaves me with plenty of research to do (architecture, clothing-styles, language barriers, foods, the types of amenities available), but also the opportunity to make something fascinating out of two people groups.  My most recent tidbit of research was milk baths, which sound scrumptious but also drying, as the lactic acid dissolves proteins while removing dead skin cells: be sure to use a good moisturizer afterward!

how about you? what have you researched?

5 ripostes:

  1. I think the only reason character clothing comes so easily to me is because of my (rather vain) interest in fashion. I was the 5-year-old who wouldn't wear The Sweater, if that gives you any hint. ;) But architecture, which I'm sure comes quite simply for you, is a bit more of a struggle. I just can't seem to wrap my head around the thing - I imagine buildings and then I can't describe them. And all the tedium of how establishments are constructed...it stresses me out a bit. >.<

    I mentioned this in my comment on Anne's blog, but I'll reiterate: I've got the hair & fashion down, but never really considered food. It plays a small part in my book, but of course it is still food and thus it's necessary to be mentioned a good few times. ;) I also need to sharpen my transporation methods - right now I've got my characters riding mostly horseback, with a carriage or two for the more important, and feet for the poor (ah, walking...). But since my knowledge of horseback is so limited (like Anne, I've only ever been on a horse a few times at a young age) I really could use to fin more out.

    I've found that the more one understands her subjects and her world, the easier it is to make her writing feel effortless. The sort of writing that glides across the reader's tongue is consequentially the writing that is authoritative; where the details are understood, and the writing can reach another rung higher on the ladder of intelligence.

    Milk baths, eh? I have a feeling this would be a rather expensive practice...O_o

  2. This was fascinating. While all of my writing research has been intrinsically focused on real history, I have one major fantasy idea within the caveats of my mind and have done some scribbling and thinking on it for a long while. One day, should I ever attempt fantasy writing, I know this will come into play a lot. But for now, I just must say, I loved reading the different things you've shared, Jenny, that are quite important to aid one in research. Something that especially piqued my interest - more for your novels themselves rather than the idea of research - was your mention of a Franco-English culture and a Persian-Arab one. You've caught me, trapped, Miss Penslayer! I suppose I can get a mild idea at the thought of a Persian-Arab culture (sheesh, I should know), but what is exactly Franco-English? I love the idea of the different accents inter-playing with your characters - I've never thought on just how much this can actually affect writing dialogue!!

    Hmm, milk baths. *scratches head* - that would feel... weird.

  3. Joy - The Franco-English culture is probably more familiar to you than the name may at first suggest. Anything post-Norman invasion of England, by which the English rulers became Frankish (Germanic, largely Scandinavian), is of a Franco-English culture. For a very long time the rulers of England were technically French, and by the same token the rulers of much of France were actually English (the fabled Richard Plantagenet, King of England, spent little time in England because France was such a nicer climate :P ). There was a pronounced blending of the Anglo-Saxon and Frankish cultures, producing the medieval England and France with which we are so passingly familiar.

    Bree - I love clothing, but for some reason it is not my strength to envision it. Buildings are hit or miss: I have a decent sense of direction and can usually tell where things ought to go. I also usually have an intuitive sense of the type of architecture I need. I lack that in clothing. I did have the privilege of taking riding lessons for a year in my formative years, also I was a dyed-in-the-wool horse-lover, so I imbibed all I could about them. That has helped me write them to a degree I was not aware of until you and Anne Elisabeth mentioned your delicate respect by leaving them alone.

    You're right about the effortlessness of knowledgeable writing. That is one thing which so impressed me about Sutcliff. Even if some of her odds-and-ends books are not gripping, she knew what she was writing about. It is my goal to learn as much (and fudge as much!) as possible to achieve that element in my writing.

  4. I was one of those people who thought Historical fiction was harder, till I started writing Fantasy. I now think Fantasy is the harder of the two because one has to start with nothing. But it is a lot of fun. I've been doing some world building for my newest book and am surprised to find I enjoy it, a lot.

    There are some helpful hints here, ones I shall keep in mind as I am working on my own book. (Religion especially, that is one I need to think on some more.)