I’ve been writing pretty much my whole life. When your mom teaches reading recovery and “Handwriting without Tears” you don’t really get to escape the chapter books and lined paper and miniature pencils that go along with it. For me, though, this was never an annoyance. Even as a child, I found a way to record the little stories I made up in my head. By putting my mini golf pencil to a sheet of wrinkly, thin handwriting paper, I was able to make a record of the silly plots I thought about before I went to sleep at night. By middle school, I realized how much more I could do by coming up with whole novel ideas, long, sweeping stories that other people could enjoy because I’d written them down. I was able to draw on my imagination well into my adulthood, and it’s something I cherish to this day!
So, why if it’s all about imagination from my head am I writing about the need to research? It turns out, it’s more necessary than you realize. Drafting my first fantasy novella revealed how much I needed to know about the world I was imagining (I believed the technology to be somewhere near 1940s America, but what was technology like then? One character was German, but what kind of marriage traditions would he want given his culture?) I had quite a few questions I needed answered, and I couldn’t spawn this kind of knowledge from within me. I started with some searches and trips to my local library, and I started researching online. And, to my surprise, it was quite fun! You’ve got to leave the notion of “research paper” behind (although, as an English major I’m now seeing the fun in them). Research for creative writing isn’t meticulous notecard taking and MLA formatting. It’s not formulaic either. Research for creative writing helps make fantasy novels more developed and focused. It’s really a tool that helps get you more excited about your project as well!
Knowing What to Look For
So, if we need to research, where do we start? For me, having an outline for my project helps me understand exactly what I need to find out. Although I’ve read about many a NYT bestselling author who just drafts from memory without needing a game plan, I feel comfortable saying that most writers are incapable of doing this. Having at the least a loose outline and character list for your novel is integral to preventing careless mistakes that will need solving in the editing process. I would risk saying it’s tantamount for the fantasy writer as well. Even when we draft our first chapter from pure imagination, good fantasy is nuanced and multilayered (really, good fiction is) and that requires some amount of planning!
When it comes to research, having an outline for your project will help you see some things you need to learn more about. If your fantastical world is similar to a period in history, what was life like during that time? For me, the fun part comes in the details: what did they wear, what did they eat, what kind of music did they listen to, what was technology like during that time? Etc. Researching myths and religious beliefs is helpful in the realm of fantasy as well. The trickiest part here is not getting so overwhelmed by the scope research can take. I’ve championed many a Pinterest board with photos of period-accurate clothing, buildings, and paintings that belong in my story only to continue building it up rather than putting it to use in a story. This is where that outline comes in handy- after all, we have a story to tell! Don’t get wrapped up in the mass of info out there and know your limits. Otherwise, your wonderful outline is wasted!
Knowing Where to Look
So, you’ve gathered some research questions and topics for further reading. Where on earth do we look for sources? I am a bit old-school, so I like a first visit to my local library to peruse the shelves and dust off my Dewey Decimal skills to see what my rural local library has. It’s usually an indicator of how much is out there (if my little library doesn’t have any resources, I might struggle to find lots of sources). For the researcher, friends, the best part about living in the 21st Century is the Internet! We have access to so many sources at our fingertips! I’ve found in writing fantasy set in inspired historical worlds, the Internet features so many historical documents and photographs posted by museums or even government databases. Even regular search engines like Google or Bing will turn up some neat, general articles about some of your questions (and I’m not afraid to say I’ve used Wikipedia as a starting place to garner a greater feel for what I’m researching! I take that evidence lightly, but there are cited sources at the end that sometimes prove helpful!). Encyclopedias like Britannica are perfect for getting this general grasp or for a birds-eye-view of historical events.
Just a brief note here: remember that research doesn’t have to look like the stereotype. Research for creative writing can look like collections of websites and images on a Pinterest board. It can also look like a playlist on Spotify. The beauty about research is it doesn’t have to be the kind you did for a term paper in high school! Look in the traditional places and all the untraditional, too.
If you find yourself struggling to find resources using library databases or common search engines, I sometimes like to ask a librarian for help. Even at my local library they have proven to be invaluable in helping me find material that I need. Often, they’ll think along the lines of who might know what I need to find, or, even better, they know who I should contact who could tell me more about what I need to know. If it’s historical records, are there universities or museums who would know more about the historical period I’m imitating. What places have exhibits about the myths or religions I want to include in my story. Don’t forget that reading other author’s works is helpful here, too. Who else has written a story similar to mine? Scour the databases, ask for help (the worst they can say is no!), and keep your eyes peeled for fresh ideas!
Knowing What’s Worth Looking At
So, you’ve found some sources but how do you know if they’re legit? Are they appropriate for my project? Are they credible? Consider where they came from first and foremost. Is this website a link you clicked in the recesses of a Google search? It’s not to say general search engines don’t turn up good stuff, but it’s always important to be cautious. Does the website look unfinished or unofficial? Again, this is not to say some simple websites are not reputable (some may just be old), but it can be an indicator. Does the site seem to have a political slant or agenda? If it’s a website, always like to check the URL: is it a .edu, .gov, .org? Or is it a .com or .net? To know if a source is worth your time, don’t be afraid to be a little critical. Research takes a lot of time for you not to screen what’s worth your resources. As always, refer back to that plan after you’ve done some searching and see how your research applies. Research will turn up lots of material, and you will often need to either adapt your outline to what you find or omit some of your research (especially in creating your own fantastical world) to suit your novel or story’s needs.
Knowing How to Use What You Find
So, you’ve gathered your sources and need to put it all together. How do you use what you found? I like to identify where it fits into my outline and character list. Don’t get too carried away, though, we’re reading fiction not a history book. And this is fantasy- it’s a world of your own creation! Good research is weaved seamlessly throughout your story so that readers can’t tell it’s from somewhere else -especially in fantasy. Keep in mind your audience and use your research as a tool to help establish character and setting. This doesn’t mean that the sources you find can’t be given credit in your work! You’ll notice that many books have afterwords, notes, or acknowledgements at the end. These are perfect places to mention some sources that helped you along the way. Further reading lists are also great places for listing real-world sources that inspired works of fantasy. You can always give credit where its due, even if what your writing doesn’t fall under MLA guidelines!
Knowing Where to Learn More (About Researching)
There are numerous blogs where writer’s detail their experiences researching for their books! Learning from other’s experiences is so incredibly helpful (especially when they are someone who has written work similar to you and found success!). Writer J.F. Penn has a cute little blog and wrote an article about her journey researching for fantasy and sci-fi. She emphasizes the importance of research for setting. Jake Wolff writes works akin to magical realism (niche fantasy, if you will) and has an article featured on LitHub in which he emphasizes the importance of not letting your research over shadow your prose. His research process turned up so much chemistry and alchemy material that his editor warned him a few of his chapters needed revisions from sounding too much like a chemistry textbook. Again, other writers’ experiences are so helpful because having been there, they get it.
Finally, Philip Gerard offers a guide for research for creative writing titled The Art of Creative Research: A Field Guide for Writers from which many of my takeaways come from! You can access the book here to purchase on Amazon. It’s pretty comprehensive for all types of writing including fantasy!
List of Links Just In Case Hyperlinks Are Broken:
Link to J.F. Penn’s blogpost on researching for fantasy: https://www.thecreativepenn.com/2017/01/18/research-a-novel/
Link to Jake Wolff’s article on LitHub on researching for fiction: https://lithub.com/on-the-fine-art-of-researching-for-fiction/
Link to purchase Philip Gerard’s The Art of Creative Research: A Field Guide for Writers: https://www.amazon.com/Art-Creative-Research-Writers-Publishing/dp/022617980X/ref=asc_df_022617980X/?tag=hyprod-20&linkCode=df0&hvadid=312126061109&hvpos=&hvnetw=g&hvrand=4997267480619775257&hvpone=&hvptwo=&hvqmt=&hvdev=c&hvdvcmdl=&hvlocint=&hvlocphy=9010558&hvtargid=pla-574084455092&psc=1