Researching for Writing Fantasy

Today’s post is part of the February is Fantasy blog event, so you might want to look around and see what else is happening! Me, I’m talking about research for writing fantasy.

Yes, research for fantasy. If you want to see me flip out like an emo teen ninja whose parents were murdered by zombie pirates, casually mention how easy fantasy writers have it since they can just, you know, make everything up.

man screaming in rage

In fact, I like to argue that it takes more research to make good fantasy, because we have to make it plausible enough for readers who know that’s not how the real world works. Unless writing urban fantasy in a contemporary setting, we also have to research for the worldbuilding of wherever our stories are set.

This can be fascinating.

Building A Monster

Let’s say I want to write a story about mermaids. But not the nice mermaids who populate paranormal romance novels and children’s videos, but scary mermaids who want to eat you.

BAIT by Laura VanArendonk Baugh. BAIT. They eat us to live. We eat them to live forever.

First I would need to research mermaid lore, and identify the traditional dangers associated with mermaids. Then I’d need to work out what known animal traits and abilities could plausibly cause these dangers, and how I could incorporate them into a single creature to feel less mythical and more just undiscovered by modern science.

Thus, for Bait I used my knowledge from my animal behavior day job and incorporated bits from elephant communication and Belyaev’s foxes, looked up a lot of information on infrasound and paranormal incidents, and quizzed a Shedd Aquarium aquarist about pump systems. Oh, and I also studied up on underwater earthquakes and their infrasound.

Or let’s say I make up a species entirely, a sort of human-dragon hybrid. I decided they were oviparous (egg-laying) but also mammals, which meant I had to look into monotremes (platypodes are not the only egg-laying mammals; echidnas are also in on this weird category) to learn how they would manage and how, during a panic attack, one would not curl into a fetal position but an embryonic position, to be strictly accurate.

John Gould print image of Ornithorhynchus anatinus (platypus), 1863

John Gould print image of Ornithorhynchus anatinus (platypus), courtesy Wikimedia

It may seem a long way from platypus to dragon hybrid (watch for them in a standalone fantasy coming in the next year or so), but that little bit of research can be the key to taking something from hand-wave-magical (“A wizard did it!” as the old joke goes) to believable and immersive.

History is an invaluable part of fantasy worldbuilding. Not that all fantasy worlds should be based on historical societies — they shouldn’t — but humankind has tried a lot of things over the generations and there’s no need to completely reinvent the wheel. Shard & Shield (at least the human half) takes place in a sort of Greco-Roman Renaissance period, so I have a lot of real ancient world facts blended into my fantasy society. This not only enables to me win arguments on the internet about history — um, very useful, sure — but allows me to display total nerdom before my friends and social network.

But when my pastor said in class the third-century church rejected a 200,000-sesterces donation from a dubious source, and someone asked if that were a significant amount, I could pipe up that it was roughly equivalent to nearly $500,000 in today’s currency, because I had just been reading up on Roman slave prices the week before. Now, isn’t that useful? Isn’t it?

“Why Does Writing A Book Take So Long”

Ask a fantasy writer sometime about the research they did for your favorite book. Chances are they’ll be thrilled someone wants to appreciate the effort they took to make the book believable. Or you can read a bit more about my previous research here or at the link above.

And check out the other posts on the February is Fantasy tour! Yesterday we heard from Kristen J. Dawson at Deep Magic. And there’s a prize for participating readers, too!

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  1. I agree that good worldbuilding requires a certain amount of research, especially on the science-y and math-y side of things. (That said, I think there are times when it’s ok to, at least in the first draft, say “This is Earth-like, not Earth, and it sounds reasonable” and let it go. And then you just have to make sure you pass the story on to betas or someone else who can either say “Yeah, that does sound reasonable” or “Um, that’s not how things work?”)
    Thanks for sharing!

    • Oh, first draft, anything goes! “There’s a cool flying thing here and I’ll figure out how it works later.”

      That said, I often find research fuels some of my best ideas, so there’s always a balance.

      Thanks for chiming in!

  2. Fascinating! Loved learning a little bit about your process for research, and your dragon-hybrids sound awesome!

  3. Wow! Who knew that much research went into fantasy? I didn’t that’s for sure! *runs off to do more research*

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