But Don’t You Just Make It All Up?

People can be quite surprised when I mention doing research as a fantasy writer. Until I explain how imagined worlds and peoples have to be solidly based in reality. Places and characters have to be believable and accessible. There must be points of contact for the reader, a degree of recognition, of familiarity. Because only then will they suspend their disbelief to follow the writer into the truly fantastic. Because the more at home the reader is in this invented world, the more effectively the writer can engender wonder, excitement, terror and triumph through the magic and the monsters, to make the story really come alive.

This issue of research steered me towards writing fantasy in the first place, rather than crime or historical fiction, two other genres that I love. I’d heard so many crime writers telling cautionary tales about the importance of getting the details right, not only those key to the crime but even the incidentals. I was at home with two small children and ten years ago, before Internet access, checking Which?’s best buy in household appliances was a major task. I couldn’t see me establishing some crucial forensic fact or timing a vital connection on the Underground. Not encumbered by the babysling and the pushchair.

As for historical fiction, I wasn’t about to touch that. My degree’s in Greek and Latin history and literature. I had spent long hours in Oxford libraries trying to disentangle the ten theories that any six historians and commentators could present to explain a single incident. Fiction or not, I couldn’t contemplate writing anything dealing with real historical events or people and not applying the same intellectual rigour in the search for that possibly mythical notion, ‘the truth’. Again, the Bodleian wouldn’t have welcomed me and my encumbrances.

But fantasy doesn’t have to be correct in the same way as a historical essay does. It has to be historically plausible, and rigorously consistent in its internal logic. I didn’t need to leave the house to achieve that. I had my college textbooks and various history books I’d acquired over the years, together with reasonably clear recollection of historical documentaries. I also had a fair few National Geographic magazines, something I’ve read since childhood when my Grandpa introduced me to it. I reckoned all that would give me sufficient resources for constructing a plausible background for a heroic fantasy. So I began writing The Thief’s Gamble. I was right, up to a point. Up to the end of The Swordsman’s Oath, my second book, as it turned out.

By then I had developed a coherent world, drawing on my general knowledge and books at hand to paint a satisfactorily detailed picture of the places where the stories had taken my characters, from barren arctic islands to a barbarous tropical warlord’s realm. Now things changed. The next story would take characters and readers to still more new places on my map. If I began repeating myself, it would be painfully evident that I was running out of inspiration. Everyone would become very bored, not least myself.

Other issues emerged. These new places were harsher uplands, quite different to the farming villages and coastal cities in previous books. I also wanted to introduce new characters, to give people good reasons for travelling, to meet and to exchange information crucial to the plot. So I began to wonder what places like Dartmoor and Yorkshire were like in pre-industrial times. I recalled that medieval minstrels and similar were well-travelled, and that fairs were major events where people met and and mingled. I drew up the outline of the book and that showed me the gaps in my knowledge. Now I needed to plug them. This pattern has repeated itself with all my subsequent books. I plan out the story and sketch in the background. Then I go in search of the detail I need to bring that background and those characters to life.

This research isn’t like undergraduate study. I did buy some scholarly tomes when I was writing The Gambler’s Fortune, such as a history of The English Fair and another on medieval travel. I have found The History Guild book club a useful source of such academic yet accessible books with each successive project, and often the cheapest way to buy them. I glance through the review section of the weekend paper, seeing what new non-fiction books are around. These days, in the couple of months when I’m doing my advance thinking and note-making before I start writing, I’ll quite often spot a book relevant to some aspect of the new story I’m working on. I also make notes of books that might come in handy for some idea still waiting its turn.

That book on fairs gave me some splendid detail to create a wholly believable opening for The Gambler’s Fortune’s. Borrowing an authoritative history of music from a friend. I read the bits about minstrels and late-medieval music and made notes of the things that I needed to know for my story. I don’t have to become any kind of expert, so reading a couple of good books on a topic is generally sufficient. After all, I’m not going to be sitting an exam.

I soon began to realise how useful local sources of history were going to be to me. On a family holiday in Devon, I picked up a slim paperback from a local press on the history of the Dartmoor tin industry in a Tourist Information office. A year or so later, I was on a business trip to Aberdeen where I bought a handful of books on Orkney, the Highlands and Islands and the medieval Kingdom of the Isles that gave a solid basis to The Assassin’s Edge. These days, whenever we visit churches, castles and stately homes, most bookstalls provide another inexpensive pamphlet or quirky local history. I stockpile these things now, against the day when I’ll need them and as a general resource to prompt ideas and subplots.

Friends contributed to research from the very beginning of my writing career. People are simply intrigued when they find out you’re a writer and love to help. A friend of a friend supplied both a book and a cassette tape of folksongs dating back the English Civil War when he heard I was wondering what kind of thing the minstrel in my story would be singing. A pal’s mother who’s variously taught cooking/domestic science/home economics/food technology for the past 40 years recommended Dorothy Hartley’s Food in England as a general reference, together with Reay Tannahill’s Food in History. That’s an excellent example of the kind of wide ranging, thematic history books that have become popular in recent years. These are extremely useful, not merely for adding depth and texture to the work in hand. I find any book spanning centuries and cultures offers facts and anecdotes that spark new, unexpected ideas.

Such books also often supply the technical details about lost skills or practises that one must still get correct. Popular science books also assist, as do television programmes, from Ray Mears’ Bushcraft series to documentaries on reconstructive archaeology. Otherwise, I risk a polite email from someone who knows more than me. I don’t have to know more than them; I just have to make sure I’m correct in the key detail that I’m using. It’s a mistake not to bother about such things because less than one person in a thousand might know better. That one person has had their enjoyment spoiled, because once the suspension of disbelief has snapped, it can’t really be fully repaired. The rest of the readers may not know or even care whether I’m right or wrong but the correct information will still heighten their sense of reality.

I soon learned to think laterally. Since The Assassin’s Edge was set in arctic latitudes, I read the Lonely Planet and Rough Guides to the Faroes, Greenland and Iceland. These offered practical information on climate and geography, fauna and flora as well as yet more useful historical detail. I did the same when I started The Aldabreshin Compass series, turning to guides to Indonesia and Fiji. I also purchased the entire back catalogue of National Geographic magazine on CD-ROM. It’s fully searchable and the articles from remote places before the advent of mass tourism are fascinating. Its other contribution is invaluable visual references through its photographs, especially from the earliest decades.

Artwork is another vital visual resource. I find working from pictures of costume, places, buildings and people is an excellent way to find the unique and memorable detail that makes things so much more real for the reader, avoiding the vagueness of a generic FantasyLand. I collect postcards from galleries and museums, particularly of interesting faces. Looking at those, I steer clear of any hint of Crimewatch photo-fits in my descriptions, particularly minor characters. Visiting the bookshelves in gallery and museum shops I find yet more useful, unusual books that will offer something to enhance the gloss of verisimilitude.

These are frequently biography and autobiography. Writing a fantasy novel isn’t merely world-building. The story must be about living, breathing characters, who are generally living very different lives to men and women today. Reading about historical figures, especially if their own words make a contribution is an excellent way into my own characters’ voices and viewpoints. I can find the connections that enable modern readers to empathise with them as well as the differences in attitude and belief that will make my characters challenging and distinct. While I loathe reality TV as a rule, occasionally I see those series putting hapless volunteers into a historical setting suggesting valuable insights.

Lateral thinking comes into play here too. Would-be authors are told to write about what they know. Personally I’ve never been a female captain of medieval mercenaries or been on a nerve-wracking hunt for a dragon through a tropical jungle. However, reading Linda Greenlaw’s autobiography, The Hungry Ocean, about her life as the female fishing-boat captain in the harsh, masculine world of the North Atlantic swordfisheries gave me essential insights for the former. David Attenborough’s books about his Zoo Quest trips to Madagascar and Borneo were splendid inspiration for the latter. The Attenborough books are long out of print but the Internet can usually supply such things.

I’ve found time and again it pays to keep my eyes open and equally, an open mind. But I also have to know when to stop. I’ve said one or two well-researched books will generally supply sufficient detail for a story. As I also mentioned, I’m not going to be sitting an exam. I have to remember that neither are my readers. There are times when I’ve read one, two or even three books on some aspect of a book or a series and have had to curb an impulse to read three more. When I’m writing, whenever I’m tempted to detour for three pages into the fascinating intricacies of travel by horse, mule or carriage, I recall those Science Fiction books that I’ve read where the story goes into suspended animation while I’m told everything I never wanted to know about air-recycling in spaceships.

However fascinating I find some aspect of medieval life or a foreign culture, it’s only there to serve the story. Detail must be used with a light touch or it becomes burdensome. While absence of research will inevitably betray itself, the bulk of a fantasy author’s background reading should remain unseen, like an iceberg nine-tenths submerged.

An essay for Writers Forum magazine 2006

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