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Robin Hobb's Infrequent and Off Topic Blog

Fantasy and Research

Researching Fantasy
 

Well.  The dice don't always fall as we might wish, do they?

 

I had planned to be at Brandon Sanderson's Minicon Dragonsteel in Salt Lace City, Utah.  So did Shawn Speakman of Grim Oak Press.  We were going to share a table, sell books and have a great time.  I haven't seen Brandon since several years before Covid, and I was looking forward to enjoying his company.

 

It didn't work out for either of us.  So I am at home today, rather envying the people who were able to attend.

 

I was supposed to be on a really fun panel about research, especially researching for fantasy.  I'd compiled some notes, even!  So, rather than waste them, I'll share some of my tips for researching that next fantasy tale or book you intend to write.

 

I'll start off with the worst thing I ever heard at a fantasy workshop. 

 

"I want to write fantasy because you can just make things up."

 

What?  WHAT?  No.  Absolutely not! 

 

You've probably heard me say elsewhere that the writer has the task of lowering the threshold of disbelief so that the reader can easily step into the story.

 Research is how you do that.  Research says that you know the bus route number for your urban fantasy or you know how many miles a horse can travel in a day in rough country or that you know a sickle is not the same as a scythe.  Not knowing those things can catapult a knowledgeable reader out of your story, and the book across the room!

Research is not relying on what you saw on TV or in a movie.  They take shortcuts, and sometimes those writers don't research very well.  (Try watching a western with someone who knows all about old firearms.  'Hey, that Colt didn't even exist in that time!' )

 

Research is also about questioning what you think you know.  That is the toughest part, because sometimes it doesn't even poke your awareness that you are making an assumption about a sword or how to cross a river on a horse or whatever. 

 

Over the years, I've come up with some tricks that work well for me.  Here are a few of them.

 

1.        The local library is your friend.  It is a much better friend than the Internet or YouTube. It is cheaper than buying a reference book.  Say your minor character is a blacksmith, and your protagonist just went into his work space.  Look around.  What does he see, smell, hear?  You don't know?  Hie ye to the Juvenile section!  First make a stop at the card catalog, oh, wait, I mean the terminal in the library.  Look up blacksmithing, but make note of the books that have a nice big capital J.  Go to the shelves and find those books.  (If you are not best friends with the Dewey Decimal System, ask a friendly librarian for help.) I love kid's reference books.  They have great illustrations and they explain things simply.  And in the back of a good kid's nonfiction book, you will find a bibliography.  That's a great guide to finding out more about blacksmithing.  By the time you are finished, your minor character will be able to flaunt a few bits of knowledge to prove she's been a blacksmith for years.

 

2.       Your friends know stuff that you don't know.  Seriously, they do! I like keeping a rolodex of primary source friends. Feel free to use your phone if you wish.   Primary source, as you know, means that the person you are talking to or the diary you are reading is actually full of first-hand information.  Think of your friends and what their areas of expertise are.  One is a gardener who knows about herbs.  What about that guy who knows all about knives?  Or the person who grew up around horses, or the one who works in the emergency room at a big hospital?  Collect them like you would collect rare coins.  People you can call on the phone are wonderful sources, especially if they are the kind of friend you can call at midnight.  And most people actually love sharing their specialized knowledge.  You can ask the weird questions like, "My hero's horse just threw a shoe!  Can she still ride the horse?  How far and how fast?  Should she pull the other shoes off?  Hey, in this era, would my horse even have shoes?"  (And no, I don't know the answers to any of those questions.  But I have at least 3 friends who probably do!)

 

3.       Up above there, I mentioned primary sources.  I love old diaries or first hand accounts of events.  Life on a sailing ship?  Chores on a cattle drive?  Dig for a diary.  Women's Diaries of the Westward Journey by Lillian Schlissel sure opened my eyes to what it was really like to journey in a Conestoga wagon.  Ernie Pyle's Brave Men  enlightened me about World War II in a way no history book ever did. 

 

4.       Take Notes!  In a paper notebook is my preference, but do as you please.  When I am researching, I always find things that don't really apply to what I'm writing now, but will surely find a home in a future book.  Jot those bits down, make a note of where you found them, and save them like a squirrel saves nuts.  (Does a squirrel really store nuts in their nest, like Chip and Dale?  See, I should look that up!) 

 

 

So, that's it.  I really wish I'd had a chance to trade more tips with my fellow panelists, but as I said above, the dice don't always roll in your favor.

 

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No Time At All

Time for Tea.

Okay, I see you!  There in the back, waving your hand frantically and stamping your feet in frustration. "I don't have the time.  No, really, I don't! No matter what I give up, something else grabs that time.  I can't hope for a quiet hour on any day, let alone one every day!"

 

I feel your pain.  Been there, done that.  But I still believe that you can write your book or short story.  Not easily.  Even if you have eight free hours a day, writing is never easy.  And when you have to do it in tiny increments, it's even harder.

 

But it's not impossible.  Just harder.

 

So here is how to start today.

 

1.  Make your writing gear accessible at all times.  It doesn't matter what you use.  A laptop, a phone, a tablet, a spiral notebook, a pocket notebook. Don't put it away.  Keep it out on a table or countertop, where you see it.  If you are using software, have that be on the screen.  If you are writing by hand, don't let the pen or pencil stray from whatever you are writing on.  Leave it where you can write that next sentence, and then let the dog out and pick the baby's toy up and put it back on the highchair tray.  Don't put your writing away.  You are now writing all day, even when your hands aren't touching it.  Your brain is.

 

2.  Make your writing portable.  Take it with you.  Shove that notebook, paper or electronic, into the pocket of the diaperbag.  Put it on the seat of the car next to you.  Have that pocket notebook, yes, in your pocket perhaps next to a pen in a nice nerdy pocket-protector. 

 

You are a writer.  You ALWAYS have a notebook and pen with you.  You are always writing.

 

When other people in the dentist office are reading the two-years-old People magazine, you write, notebook on knee.  On the bus or train.  On your break from waitressing.  While you are sitting on the sidelines watching your kid's soccer practice.  Sitting on the bathroom floor while the toddler is in the tub splashing.   (Yup, done all those.)

 

3.  And finally, defend those writing moments.  The ringing phone or the pinging text can wait while you finish that sentence, or even that paragraph.  Folding the laundry or raking the leaves can wait; I promise those chores won't go away.  (Sometimes, if you leave them long enough, someone else does them.)  Volunteer to take the care for the oil change.  And write in their lobby.  

 

Does it work?  Well, I got 1668 words yesterday,  Worked for me.  

 

One final tip.  It you are seizing some moments last thing at night and you know you are about at the end of your stamina, stop while you know what the next sentence will be.  Save it for tomorrow, to help you get started again.

 

And now I've used up my allotted blog time.  Maybe I'll be here tomorrow.  Who knows?

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How to Write a Book When You Don't Have Time to Write

 
 A lovely little clock in a wooden case reminding me to limit my time writing this blog.
 
 
 

  Well, the great debate about Blue Ticks on Twitter rages on.  With so many people threatening to leave Twitter over it and other issues, perhaps it's time for me to make this website a more timely and interesting place.  The plus for me is that I can ramble on as much as I like about the things that interest me.  

 

I hope you will find them interesting also.

 

I've posted before about how important it is to Write Here, Write Now.  I even delivered that advice at several conventions.  But fear not, I'm not oging to cover all that again here.  Instead, I'm going to talk about the next thing that would-be writers say.  "I simply don't have time to write.  I want to write, but there's no available time in my life.

 

My life has recently become more complicated.  More loads of laundry, a need to cook 'real meals' rather than tell my tolerant spouse to 'go fix yourself a sandwich', a need to keep my messy house more clear of obstacles and stacks . . . all of it eats minutes if not hours every day.  

 

Yet I continue to write.  And you can start, if that is your heartfelt desire.

 

First of all, you have to realize one thing.  You will never have more free time in your life than you do right now.  As one of your obligations falls away (Kids going to school now) something else will pop up to claim that time (part time job?  Volunteering in the school?)  The only way to handle this is to claw back some of the time you have already committed to other things.

 

Here's my list of things I curtail when necessary things claim more of my time.

Television (I spend more time looking for something to watch than I do watching!)

Cooking  (Plan ahead so you can freeze extra portions, budget a takeaway meal, etc.)

On-line activities (gaming, social media, chatting)

 

You don't have to give those things up. Just decide how much time each can claim, and stick to it.

 

You can make your own list.  I promise not to judge you.

 

Next importan step.  Defend the block of time you have claimed.  If you have a family or friends, people will ask you for  your time.  'Can you babysit for me?'  'Would you drive me to the airport?'  'Let's go out for drinks.' Whatever.  Practice saying, "Not now.  This is my writing time."  Just as you wouldn't jump out of the bathtub to do those things, don't get up from the keyboard.  This is your writing.  It's important to you.  Claim it.  And don't hesitate to reverse the flow.  Ask your family to help protect that time.  Let your friends know that you are writing your magnum opus and you need time to do it.

 

Things that help me but may be hazardous to you.

Keep a writing log.  Jot down when you start, how many words/pages you have at the beginning of your session, and then log when you stop writing and what results you can claim.   Yesterday, I got 585 words.  Pathetic, right?  But that doesn't reflect that I reorganized the first 100 pages, moving chapters, inserting chapter headings for bridge work I need to create, researched diseases of sheep (it's relevant!)etc.  While the word count may not reflect all that you did, it tells you one thing.  Yesterday I wrote.  Today I write. And tomorrow I will have written.  Even if I write only 500 words a day, at the end of the year I will have 182,500 words.  That's a respectable book chunk!

 

And . . . oh, my.  Look at the time!  That's all my blogging for today.  

 

I will see you tomorrow.  Perhaps.  But now I have to go.

 

I have a book to write.

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