When you confess to new acquaintances that you write books, they often don’t know what to say, other than “Oh, how nice. What kind?” When you admit that you write speculative fiction, you get a range of reactions, from pitying condescension to confused, blank looks.
Occasionally people laugh and tell me how easy it must be since I can make any old thing up and it will fly
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Readers ALWAYS know when you have gone off the track and into the shrubs. World building must combine enough realism with the created world to make the fantasy plausible.
It involves research.
I spend hundreds of hours researching the most trivial details for every book I write. If I get it wrong, it’s because I failed to look in the right place.
In the process of writing numerous short stories, four medieval alternate-world fantasy novels, and six RPG game-based fantasy novels, I’ve done as much investigation into medieval times as many scholars. I know how people dressed, what they ate, how they earned a living, how they preserved food and every intimate detail of their lives that is researchable.
I know all of this because I read scientific papers written by experts on the subject, all of which are available to us via the internet. My files are full of the fruits of other people’s efforts, with the sources documented and the authors credited. By documenting my sources, I know where to go to find out more if I need to.
Keeping a list of links to websites that pertain to a particular novel is critical. Murphy’s Law is in full force here: if you didn’t write down the links and the authors, you will surely need the information again and won’t be able to find it.
Readers are smart. If something is impossible, and you don’t somehow make it probable, you will lose your readers.
The best way to make the impossible into something probable is to mix your fantasy with a good dose of real history. Be historically accurate as often as you can, so that when your blacksmith makes a weapon, readers who know about smithing will not be jarred out of the story by inaccuracy.
Most of the time, these things you spend untold hours researching will only get one line in your narrative, but if that line is inaccurate or impossible, your readers will know you were too lazy to do it right.
The following is a short list of go-to websites for in-depth, accurate information for when I am writing, including grammar questions. They are self-explanatory and are easy to make use of. Submit your questions via the handy query box. Figuring out how to phrase your question to get the answer you need to know may take several tries. Be persistent and as specific as possible, and you will soon have answers.
Medieval Histories http://www.medievalhistories.com
Wikimedia Commons https://commons.wikimedia.org/
These websites are just the beginning. Look at the many different sites that come up when you google a query and make a note in a log of each site that works for you.
I suggest you don’t simply bookmark these things. When your computer dies, you lose your bookmarks, even if you have saved all your work to the cloud (Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive, etc.).
Don’t lose all those hours of research. Create a logbook (using word, excel, google docs, etc.) and save in a file to the cloud. Label it with a clear and simple name, such as Links_for_Research.
I’ve learned a lot from reading the great literature of ages past. If you really want to know how people thought during Medieval times, read a modern translation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. People were bawdy, irreverent, and loved nothing more than a good joke.
Much like we are today.
If you are writing a story set in an alternate world environment, you may need to know what sort of clothing common people wore in medieval times.
Or you might want to know what their home looked like, or a village.
For that, I suggest you seek out the art of the Flemish Painters.
When you go to the great art, you will see what men and women looked like and how they dressed, both for celebrations, and for working.
You will see what their towns looked like, and the public places they gathered in. The interiors of their homes are also found in the works of the great Flemish painters.
Any time you want an idea of average village life in the Late Middle Ages through the 17th century, you need to look no further than Wikimedia Commons. There, under the heading Category: Painters from the Northern Netherlands (before 1830) you will find the brilliant works of the Dutch Masters. These were artists living in what is now The Netherlands, and who were creating accurate records of the everyday life of the common people, along with stylized religious images.
They painted their subjects with a heavy dose of religious allegory, but that was a part of village life—both the Inquisition and the Reformation were under way, and the politics of religion was in the very air they breathed. If you are going to write medieval fantasy, you must understand how strong the influence of the Church was and how entangled it was in politics. You must show how even a fantasy religion and its politics affect the common person's life.
I adore Rembrandt and the painters who lived and worked during his era. I love the work of one family of early Dutch painters from Flanders, the Brueghel Family. Five generations of their family were well-known painters and printmakers.
The internet is your friend. Researching your novel can be incredibly entertaining. Research is what slows me down more than anything.
I spend far too many happy hours on Wikimedia Commons, looking at 16th-century Netherlandish paintings, so much so that I now also regularly write an art history blog. I love to share the beautiful art I have discovered on my writing journey. Since I already had the public stage in the form of my author’s website, it seemed a natural thing to share my secret passion for art and the people who make it.
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Credits and Attributions:
Connie J. Jasperson is a published poet and the author of ten novels. Her work has appeared in numerous anthologies. A founding member of Myrddin Publishing Group, she can be found blogging regularly on both the craft of writing and art history at Life in the Realm of Fantasy.
This article was first published on August 23, 2017 on Life in the Realm of Fantasy as Do the Research © 2017 Connie J. Jasperson https://conniejjasperson.com/2019/03/25/gaining-strength-through-rejection-amwriting/ and has been reprinted by permission.