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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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