Researching Reality for a Fantasy World
a guest blog by Brian McClellan
Brian McClellan lives in Cleveland, Ohio with his wife, two dogs, a cat, and between 6,000 and 60,000 honey bees (depending on the time of year). He began writing on Wheel of Time role playing websites at fifteen. Encouraged toward writing by his parents, he started working on short stories and novellas in his late teens. He went on to major in English with an emphasis on creative writing at Brigham Young University. It was here he met Brandon Sanderson, who encouraged Brian’s feeble attempts at plotting and characters more than he should have. Brian continued to study writing not just as an art but as a business and was determined this would be his life-long career. He attended Orson Scott Card’s Literary Bootcamp in 2006. In 2008, he received honorable mention in the Writers of the Future Contest. In November 2011, PROMISE OF BLOOD and two sequels sold at auction to Orbit Books. It is due out in April of 2013. More info can be found on his website or on twitter. This is a guest blog by Brian.
There is a line that every fantasy author needs to walk when building their universe. It treads the median between what is real and relatable to readers that live their lives in this physical world of ours and what is new and interesting about the fantasy world we have created for the reader to immerse themselves.
I’ve heard people say that a writer can do anything they want in their fantasy world—after all, the only limit is their imagination. I wish this were the case. But we, as authors, are not creating art in a vacuum. We are writing stories that other people will (hopefully) pay for, and they won’t do that if they aren’t immediately pulled in by the story.
So we give it a framework. Just a little something to provide the reader context and help them wrap their minds around the world. For instance, I tell people that I write epic fantasy in a magical world that has progressed into the industrial age. Even someone who has never heard of JRR Tolkien or George RR Martin will hear that description and have an idea of what to expect.
To help build upon this framework, I tried to make PROMISE OF BLOOD as true to the time period as possible. This was done in the details and details require research. I had to find out what a Napoleonic soldier carried in his kit, or how a gentleman of the era dressed for the rain.
My go-to starting point for any research is Wikipedia. Some of you might be skeptical, but Wikipedia is a fantastic jumping-off point. It gives an author general ideas and it also sites sources. These sources can be very valuable, whether they be scholarly papers or articles that you can find online, or books you can borrow from your local library or purchase from the bookstore. To be perfectly honest, I’m able to do most of my research without ever leaving my desk.
Remember, though, that I said “most” of my research is done from my desk. Research still requires footwork, even in this day and age. When writing PROMISE OF BLOOD, I took frequent trips to the art museum to examine arms and armor from the time period. I got books from the library, and I took walks in the forest to help with setting.
I wanted to evoke the feel of the Industrial Revolution. I asked myself what words came to mind, and I used them; words like guillotine, factory, brigadier, or canal. The terms field marshal and trade union. I researched the history and etymology behind each of these. Some of these words became important building blocks of the novel.
There’s even more that I could have done, had my schedule or budget allowed it. I would have loved to have traveled to England and France and tour 19th century forts, or have participated in French Revolution reenactments. An author should always be asking themselves what else they can do to flesh out their world. These items can be cost-prohibitive, but there’s always something, however small, that can help your world feel a little more real.