The Research Readers Don’t See

I often get asked — generally by writers from other literary traditions, like creative nonfiction or mystery or thrillers — whether I do research, as a fantasy writer, or whether I just make it all up.

This question flummoxes me, and it also tells me just how (poorly) these people regard fantasy. Or maybe it’s not that they have a poor regard for it; maybe it’s that they have no regard for it, and they’re speaking out of ignorance. Maybe they genuinely don’t understand what goes into writing a typical fantasy novel. So at the risk of stating the obvious for the fantasy writers/readers in our audience, let me answer that question here.

Of course I do research. I do a metric ton of it.

Granted, I usually write in secondary (“other than Earth”) worlds, so I do make quite a bit of stuff up. That said, I often resort to the fantasy writer’s trick of making my created worlds resemble something in our own world, so that readers will be able to identify with it more easily. I could make it all up if I wanted to, but sometimes I prefer the challenge of playing with readers’ expectations and historical knowledge. After all, if a society like ancient Egypt had existed on the moon of a Jupiter-like gas giant, how drastically would its sun-centered cosmology have differed from that of our own Egypt? In truth, a society that developed on a planet with such different parameters would probably resemble nothing on our world — so I researched ancient Egypt in order to keep my society similar. I visited museums, read books, attended lectures. I gathered information on everything from their architecture to how ancient Egyptians cleaned their teeth. And then, only then, did I screw with it.

Because the whole point was to show the differences. Which meant I had to both recreate ancient Egypt, and show how this other society veered off from it. So the story is full of barechested men wearing loinskirts and makeup, and perfumed women wheeling and dealing, and children with cute little sidelocks, all interacting in a sunbleached city full of incredible stone monuments along the green, green banks of a mighty river. But these people wouldn’t wear bracelets featuring the sun-symbol of the god Re (Ra); they would instead venerate the big multicolored “moon” that took up more space in their sky. They would use base-four math, since the moon has four main bands of color across its face. They would develop new creation stories to explain the moon and its relationship to the sun, which would in turn affect the whole pantheon.

So I also needed to study mathematical base conversion, ideographic writing systems, astronomy, and ancient belief systems (not just Egyptian — I looked into Persian and Nubian too, for comparison). I had to build a new creation ideology from scratch, taking into account the style of the times (e.g., lots of personification, symbolic rendering of natural processes, kinky sex), and then I had to decide how this creation story would impact the society on a day to day basis. After all, if most ancient societies posited the sun as male, and the moon as female, what happens to gender relations when the moon appears to be ten times bigger than the sun in the sky? So then I needed to study matrifocal societies to see how they worked.

I explained all this to an acquaintance who’s written several nonfiction books, and she gaped at me. “I don’t do anywhere near that much research,” she said.

Yeah, well. I do.

I had an easier time of it with the Inheritance Trilogy, in fact, because that world wasn’t meant to resemble Earth’s in any recognizable sense. However, it was still a human society, and human societies everywhere share certain patterns of behavior, so it seemed wise to incorporate those patterns in order to make my humans more plausible. In the world of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, one culture has conquered all others, imposing its own customs on the various subject peoples by force. I had only to look to our own world’s history to see how this would play out: genocide, reeducation camps, systematic rape, state removal/brainwashing/abuse of children so that whole generations are warped, language police, spiritual leaders co-opted, acts of resistance involving the struggle to preserve the original culture in secret… So I built all this into my world. And then, because I figured the presence of magic would actually make all this oppression worse, I screwed with it again. So for example, the dominating culture has crafted a magical disease that periodically sweeps through the working classes (usually whenever they’ve gotten restless, and sometimes when resources are scarce) and kills them by the thousand. Only working-class people, note; the upper classes (as judged by the dominant culture) are immune.

Getting this right, unfortunately, necessitated that I do a whole lot of research into the ugliest parts of our history. Painful stuff — made more painful by the fact that a shocking amount of it is still going on. So when one of the early readers of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was horrified by some of the things I touched on in the story, I pointed at a stack of books in my office on the Middle Passage, the Holocaust, the ongoing involuntary sterilization of Native American women, and a few other atrocities in our own recent history. “My book’s nowhere near as bad as that stuff,” I said. “I wanted to keep it in fantasy, not horror.”

So, yeah. Research.

The thing I think readers don’t get — and this includes non-fantasy readers — is that “making stuff up” is a lot harder than it looks. People who do read fantasy are as jaded and skeptical as any other readers; they’re just as quick to reject implausibility whenever they encounter it. And when you’re working with material that’s inherently implausible — hello? Enslaved gods, impossible plagues? — it’s even more essential that everything else be spot-on. Fantasy readers can swallow the whoppers, like magic and demons and whatnot, but they go down easier with a thick chocolatey coating of realism.

Mmm. Chocolate. Oh, yeah — must remember to include some sort of semi-narcotic orgasmically sweet substance in all my worlds. For plausibility. Yeah.

5 Responses to “The Research Readers Don’t See”

  1. 1 Terri-Lynne
    August 27, 2009 at 12:58 pm

    THANK YOU!!! I am going to print up several copies of this and keep them in my briefcase so that when I’m out at some writerly get together, I can pass them out to so many of my writer friends who just don’t get it.

    It’s not easy to create a world–not just a world, but a plausible one. It’s much easier to say, “Chicago, 1937” and have everyone get an automatic image and feel in their heads. Of course, there is research in that sort of writing as well. I don’t mean to imply that fantasy research is easier. But it is as intensive, and it’s really, really fun, and sometimes heartbreaking–but oh–SO necessary!

    Excellent article, this. Thanks again.

  2. 2 Sue
    August 27, 2009 at 5:08 pm

    Fantasy worlds challenge readers to think as they read.

  3. 3 Yarnspnr
    August 28, 2009 at 2:05 am

    I concur. I’ve spent thousands of hours in research on my similar to Earth world. People come from Earth through a watery portal to their new world. Once there, they are rounded up by former Earth types and reprogrammed into that world – a system that gives them three options: 1. They agree to conform to their new environment. 2. They are imprisoned for the rest of their lives (which could be as long as 900+ years). 3. They are executed.

    Offspring of these people live only the normal 75+ years, which makes for a lot of decision making concerning marriage and childbearing.

    Then, of course, there are the people native to the planet before the first people came there. If I didn’t do the years of research (including native languages) I’d be up the creek. In the end, it’s all worth it. But you’re right. People who critique for me think I’ve pulled it all out of my head as I wrote. Ha!

  4. 4 Liane Merciel
    August 28, 2009 at 10:44 am


    I’m a whole lot less thorough than you are, but I do try to keep my stuff close to reality. Like you said, if you want people to believe your big lies, the little stuff on the way there needs to be (or at least sound) true.

    It does not, however, help our collective credibility that quite a few prominent fantasy authors clearly couldn’t give a flip about researching anything. They really _do_ just make it all up. So it’s not always that writers of other genres aren’t familiar with ours, unfortunately. They might just be familiar with the most hand-wavy parts of it.

    However I am very happy to hear that you don’t buy into excessive hand-wavery and am looking forward to your book even more on account of it.

  5. August 28, 2009 at 7:37 pm

    Yes. And even if you don’t base it on anything at all, if you’re doing human beings, you have to know what human beings would *do* in a certain circumstance. High Fantasy with elves and whatever is so maddening these days because there’s all of this woo-woo we-all-just-get-along crap. I think one of the best short stories I read in a HF setting recently was one where the family was just as dysfunctional as any other broken family out there, if not more so, right down to the physical and emotional abuse that they all piled on each other. The addition of magic didn’t magically solve their problems, it made it *worse*, and I really appreciated that.

    Me, I write Urban Fantasy a fair bit, which means the research has to be there, or I end up with a setting that isn’t the real world with magic, it’s a fake world with magic. And that drives *me* crazy, no matter whether my readers would be willing to cope with it.

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