Getting To Know It…

You’re writing a story.  The characters are “live” and the plot is singing, but you realize that something’s wrong, something’s flat.  After consideration, you realize that it’s the setting.

Research Assistant

Maybe you’re writing a fantasy set in a world that’s sort of medieval.  However, all you know about such worlds is what you’ve read in other fantasy novels, or maybe from a role-playing game, or maybe a computer game…  Of course, there was that section about the middle ages in your history class.  And you do have a friend who was in the SCA.  Still…

It’s not enough.  Where do you start?

“Write about what you know” is a basic principle in most fiction writing courses.  It’s also one that most beginning SF/F writers rebel against.  I want to write about dragons!  I want to write about wizards!  Those don’t exist except in fiction, so how can I “know”?  Can’t I just make it up?

Sure.  But what are you going to make it up from?  I hate to tell you this, but writing speculative fiction (an umbrella term that embraces science fiction, fantasy, horror, and their various offspring) isn’t an excuse to do less research, it’s a requirement to do more.

“What!  How could I possibly need to do more?  These things aren’t real.  I can do whatever I want!”

Not if you don’t want your readers to snarl at you.  The “Twilight” novels have been very successful, but this hasn’t kept lots of nasty comments being made about Stephanie Meyers’ unfamiliarity with the basics of folklore regarding vampires and werewolves.  She has lots of readers, true, but she’d probably have even more if she hadn’t shut out a large potential readership – and certainly she’d have spared herself a lot of grief.

“Well, can’t I just sort of borrow from what other writers have done?  I mean, they’re my inspiration.”

Yes.  You can.  I’ll leave it to others to list the derivative authors who have been very successful but, based upon what I saw in the comments last week, maintaining “voice” is very important to most writers.  How can you have a voice if you’re just copying someone else?

“Oh…  All right.  I’ll at least think about doing some research.”

Great!  You’ll be in good company.  J.R.R. Tolkien did a lot of background work for his “Middle Earth.”  You can find some of it in The Annals of Kings and Rulers and other appendixes to The Return of the KingThe Silmarillion is considered unreadable by many, but that’s because it’s not really a novel.  My husband Jim (who is both a huge Tolkien fan and an anthropologist) said he suddenly understood the The Simarillion when he realized it was actually an origin story – an explanation for where everyone came from and of the roots of the current conflict – not a novel.

I believe that one of the reasons that Tolkien’s novels continue to garner new readers is because he was indeed writing about what he knew.  He knew where his elves came from and his dwarves.  He knew why various dragons lived in various places.  He knew why there were balrogs.  His novel might have been fantasy, but he had worked out the foundations of his world.

“Does this mean I need to write hundreds of pages of foundation material before I ever start the novel?”

No.  And, well, maybe, yes…

Let me give an example from my own work.  Through Wolf’s Eyes is, among other things, the story of the contest for the throne of Hawk Haven.  First I had to work out why it was contested.  “Simple,” you say. “King Tedric doesn’t have an heir and hasn’t named one.”

Simple?  Hah!  Questions of inheritance – especially when what is being inherited is a throne – are never simple.  Look at the conflicts following the death of Henry the VIII if you want a great example.  Or watch the play (or marvelous film) The Lion in Winter (which is about King Henry II).  Liberties were taken with the history, but it’s a great demonstration of what happens when there are multiple potential heirs, each with strong claims.

But Through Wolf’s Eyes isn’t set in historical England.  It’s set in a fictional world.  Therefore, first I had to ask myself who was eligible inherit: The first born?  Any child of the monarch?  The favorite?  The sister’s son?  (In some cultures, inheritance passes through the female line, even when females themselves aren’t eligible.) Are females included?

I decided that, in Hawk Haven, in usual cases inheritance would pass to the first born, females included, moving down the line in case of death.

However, in Through Wolf’s Eyes, King Tedric’s first born is dead.  His second born is also dead (but her husband is around and some feel he has a claim).  His third born is missing – and also disinherited.  This would then move the possibilities sideways – to King Tedric’s siblings and, because his siblings are fairly elderly, to their children.

I’m going to stop summarizing here.  Suffice to say, before I could move into writing this stage of the novel, I had to design for myself the equivalent of a treatise on inheritance law in the Kingdom of Hawk Haven.   I also had to write a complete family tree for King Tedric’s family, going back several generations and forward to infant children.

To do this, I needed to make biographical sketches of most of the people involved, explaining who they had married or why they had not married and if they had children.  It took quite a bit of effort and a lot of going back and forth.  However, when I was done, I had a solid foundation for the intrigues that underlay the action of the book.

Now I was writing about what I knew.  Much of what I knew didn’t make it on the page, anymore than Tolkien introduced the history of Morgath (who was responsible for the balrog) into The Fellowship of the Ring, but I knew.

I’m going to stop here and invite questions and comments.

However, this topic is much on my mind, so I might very well return at some future date!

11 Responses to “Getting To Know It…”

  1. Nicholas Wells Says:

    I think you just summarized the core of my headaches. Though I can sum it up in one question I often find myself asking;

    “What do I need to know to write this story?”

    My novella is easy. Just wolves. The sci-fi? Ok, now I have alien races, alien worlds, alien politics, modern technology, modern culture….. If I wasn’t such a strong fan of Star Trek and Babylon 5, I’d probably have no idea where to begin.

    So when I read a sci-fi book or watch a sci-fi show, I take note of the details that make it work. Star Trek was pretty good about their tech, and their characters. Babylon 5 had well defined cultures, politics, and conflicts. I’ve even taken some notes from “Mass Effect” (a video game with a VERY strong plot) as to what makes a race that isn’t even real, interesting enough that I want to learn about it anyway.

    From there…. well, I do start making things up. We don’t have telepaths, but sci-fi loves having them around. If I want them, I have to decide how they work and how the world treats them. I also listen to current trends about technology, and try to apply it’s eventual evolution into my future. For example, the idea of a cloaking device is actually very attainable. We just haven’t gotten it down yet.

    I don’t know if I’ll ever know my worlds like Tolkien. But I’d like to hope they’re alive enough for my readers.

  2. heteromeles Says:


    I’m not sure whether Stephanie Meyer is guilty of not researching her folklore, or simply not respecting the current cannon. The thing I find troubling is that most of our “folklore” on werewolves and zombies was made up out of whole cloth in the movies. As for vampires, I’m not sure how many writers follow Bram Stoker’s lead and look at folktales, and how many use Dracula as primary literature. I’m guessing the latter.

    The primary literature, for zombies, would be something like Wade Davis’ Serpent and the Rainbow. For Native American werewolves, it might be things like things like Kluckhorn’s Navaho Witchcraft or Whitehead’s Dark Shamans. That said, I’m not sure I’d bother to use the above sources, because most readers are convinced they “know” what vampires, werewolves, and zombies already are. Given that most people are clueless about the original folklore, one might get Meyer’ed in controversy for actually doing the research and respecting the original stories, especially if one pulled off the rather difficult task of making a genuine Navajo wolf into a sympathetic teenage character.

    As for getting into the background, there’s a whole genre of literature that’s about the background and scenery: it’s called natural history. There’s an endless number of ideas lurking out there. Dragons? Read up on monitors, watch Nova’s Lizard Kings, give them the social structure of sperm whales or elephants, and go to town. Want to make the aliens more alien? Give them the life cycles of ferns or fungi. Want to make the landscape come alive? Learn to read the history of your local landscapes as you walk and drive around on them. Human structures and artifacts tell you a lot about history (as Jim will tell you), but as a botanist, I can read off the fire and disturbance history for the last decades to centuries, just by identifying what plants are there. Giant redwoods have been there for centuries, scraggly weeds among the furrows have been there since the field was last plowed. There are many gradations in between, each unique to their part of the world. If you get good at it, you can even have a 2,500 year-old olive tree growing out of a neolithic stone wall, just to provide a bit of local Mediterranean color.

    There are two drawbacks in doing this. One is that most readers are clueless about nature. I’ve seen writers praised for their realistic landscapes, when they have protagonists enjoying the autumn color, driving among the yellowing autumn trees in the hills above Malibu. In reality, a local would feel the dry, hot Santa Ana wind howling down Malibu Canyon and start sniffing the air for that first hint of woodsmoke, because smoke means you have less than an hour to get out alive. Nothing like a New York reviewer’s knowledge of the West Coast, is there? This happens all the time, and one reason I like Jane’s books is that she makes this mistake far less often than most authors do.

    The other drawback with learning about the natural world is that, after a while, humans start seeming rather flat and ephemeral. That bugs readers too. We have to respect the human folklore that we’re the only thing that ultimately matters, even when we wonder whether that’s true.

  3. Other Janeanimalfriendswestmoreland Says:

    Even though those details might not make it to the page, the sense of them comes across to the reader. I love stories that exist in a world that feels so real – where it feels like there are more stories existing in the world that are waiting to be told.

  4. Louis Says:

    Even readers benefit from research – especially if the author does it for them 🙂

    I also appreciate most the authors who share it with us, the way Tolkien did in the appendices to LOTR, which I reread more often than large parts of the text. The Tale of Years, especially, is a great way of showing ‘what happens after’ without having to deal with the fact that most of life [and history], even for great heroes, doesn’t make for great literature. Unfortunately, too many readers don’t want the background without several pounds of sugar coating. Something to do with their school years, I gather.

    The Silmarillion is an interesting example of the writer’s knowledge being too much deeper that the readers’. I recognised its roots in Christian origin mythology immediately, so I never had any difficulty appreciating it [other than finding it ‘very Catholic’, perhaps], but I had, as a kid, become familiar with the origin stories of many cultures so I was comfortable with the genre. It was years before I realised that most of the people, in North America at least, who were bouncing off it had never known that there was anything more to Christian mythology than the parables at the beginning of Genesis – if they even knew those. A whole class of literature that they weren’t used to and weren’t expecting.

  5. janelindskold Says:

    So much good stuff here… But first I’m going to give an answer I gave to one of the “ghosts.” She sort of panicked at the idea she had to do all this background design first.

    Go back and read the first paragraph, dear ghost. I tried to make clear that often this sort of background development happens AFTER the novel is started, AFTER you realize that your characters are running around in front of a painted background, not living in a real world.

    I think there are two things that are particularly interesting in the comments above. One is how much readers appreciate a sense that the world (and characters in the world) have depth, even when all the details don’t show up on the page.

    The second is that where you get your research material varies with the writer. Biologist Heteromeles goes finds inspiration in his field. Nicholas finds inspiration and guidance in the storytelling mediums that made him want to tell his own stories.

    I certainly have found it in the things I love as well.

    And Louis shows how much the reader’s own background contributes to understanding the depths of the story. It’s a complicated puzzle and therefore can’t have one simple answer.

  6. Barbara Joan Says:

    Loved all the comments. Background is very important I believe, but what I also believe is important is language.

    Nothing bothers me more than reading a book set in 18th century Russia where the characters speak in 20th century, mid-western idioms. Does this bother anyone else?

    • heteromeles Says:

      Barbara, I think that’s a good point, but tastes certainly differ. For example, I can’t read Russian, so throwing in a salting of babushkas and samovars might be enough for me. Someone who loved War and Peace might get annoyed with my tastes in the matter.

      Obviously, I’m more happy when they get the science right in the setting, but it’s much the same thing.

      Fortunately, there are a lot of books out there for all of us.

      • janelindskold Says:

        Perhaps a compromise is possible? Say, avoiding blatant “mid-western idiom” but not feeling that one needs to translate from 18 century Russian?

        One thing the Thursday Tangents I’m writing with Alan Robson has taught me is that many words are freighted with a lot of cultural baggage.

        Perhaps getting that across is the most important way to make a book “feel” like it belongs to its time period.

  7. Barbara Joan Says:

    Thanks Heteromeles and Jane,

    What I was trying to say is that sometimes the language does have the right “feel” and then I wonder if it’s me feeling that way or did 18th century Russians really speak with 20th century slang.

  8. Barbara Joan Says:

    whoops meant does NOT have the right feel

  9. Chad Cloman Says:

    Regarding The Silmarillion, I found it unreadable when it first came out, but I was in Junior High at the time so that might have had something to do with it. Years later, one of my work colleagues said it was like reading scripture.

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