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Jun 282011

Those of us who don’t make a point of wearing lab coats to impress the very thick may not have the healthiest attitude towards your so-called facts.

After all, in a line of work characterized mostly by making shit up, it’s tempting to think that reality need never intrude. Fantasy, by dint of dealing so frequently with made-up worlds, is particularly prone to this. Why learn whether pine trees grow in France when our story is actually set in F’rance, and we can cleverly call them ‘les foozle trees’ and be done with it without mousing over to Wikipedia? Suck it, treeologists*!

*A quick jaunt over to the internet implies that these are called ‘dendrologists’, which makes sense in a nerdy Latin root sort of way.

It’s true that there can be a paralytic quality to research. I once spent a good three hours trying to find information on ancient locksmithing, before realizing that what I was doing was a) difficult; b) time-consuming; c) really not that important, in the grand scheme of nobody-gives-a-shit-about-the-inner-workings-of-doors.

Mostly nobody. I’m sure that somewhere out there is a locksmith who drinks himself to sleep every time somebody opens a door with a hairpin in a movie.

There are very good reasons to spend time on research, and the best of them has very little to do with verisimilitude. Research is a fridge stuffed to the gills with delicious ideas. It has a way of proposing scenes you didn’t know you need to write, and it fleshes out character and setting with the sort of detail that really brings those things to life. Would Mad Men be nearly as interesting if it wasn’t so true to, say, the sexism endemic in the ’60s workplace? How many of us would know how the secretarial corps worked? How many of us would know what it sounds like to have a hundred women clacking away at typewriters at exactly the same time? Hell, I’m sure some of us have never seen a typewriter, and fifty years is really not that long ago.

Without research, your Gauls are just Americans with funny hats (and you probably put wings on them, but in your defense, Asterix is pretty cool). With research, you have kings on the front lines of war. You have the last man to a war council being sacrificed for luck. And hell, you probably have druids cutting him open so that they can augur up a storm in the pattern of his intestines (yes, likely apocryphal).

Besides, even if we can’t all be experts on everything, it’s fun to try.

We normally talk about historical fantasy here, but I want to take a jaunt into the modern just briefly, to note that: yes, you do need to do some research. It may seem silly to spend a whole lot of time hitting the books in preparation for something that falls under the rubric ‘write what you know’, but the simple fact of it is that they know it too. And if, in a modern fantasy, you tell us that Toronto’s City Hall is at Yonge and Eglinton, and that there’s a Ford Civic parked out front, somebody is going to be pulled right out of that story.

In many ways, it’s actually more important to get your facts straight in a modern story… but the good news is that it’s also much easier. If you want to know what Canadians eat, it’s as easy as googling up a menu from Tim’s. Hell, you can find a franchise, and go straight to Google Street View to see what’s in the vicinity. That might be taking the need for verisimilitude somewhat too far, mind you, but it’s possible. And by possible, I mean easy.

Historical and history-inspired writing is the opposite end of the paradox. Because we aren’t directly familiar with the technology levels, and because we probably don’t know what Gauls ate, and because we really wouldn’t know how to go about hunting a boar, research becomes vital… at the same time as the core of people who could call you on mistakes dwindles.

Again, verisimilitude isn’t really the key here, particularly when you’re dealing with hot elves-on-dwarves fantasticals. What you want is to tell a good story without making any blunders so obvious that they pull readers directly out. So, yes, electricity probably won’t go over well in ancient Egypt, unless you’re writing one of those delightful kook stories that insists the pyramids were all aliens, man. And you probably didn’t need to hit Wikipedia to figure that out.

But what did they eat? How were their houses laid out? Were servants paid a wage, or did they work for room and board? Who decided what was legal? Was there a punishment for adultery? What could priests get away with it if they said a few Hail Osirises? All of a sudden, we’re getting into questions that are interesting and make for good drama.

And, unfortunately, these are the difficult questions to answer.

The more distant our histories, the more likely it is that they’re essentially the who-conquered-what stories of the nobility. It’s easy to find out who was king in Persia in 442 BC (Artaxerxes I). It’s a lot more difficult to find out how his subjects lived.

Less so now, though. The recent trend towards ‘do-it-yourself’ history – you know, lock modern family up in a period-appropriate house for a month, build a trebuchet using only period-appropriate technology, etc. – means that you can very likely pop onto YouTube and find a documentary intimately concerned with the question we’re actually interested in: how did they live?

Thanks to the magic of YouTube, I know that Victorians enjoyed washing down their calf’s brains with the occasional cocktail of warm ale, cold ale and gin. Thanks, YouTube!

Failing that, children’s books are an amazing resource. Kids have little patience for questions like: who conquered what at the battle of where in the year which? After just an hour of parroting back year numbers, they’re busy whining about cookies and Nintendos and their real parents.

But kids are interested in context. They want to know what they would have eaten, how they would have dressed, who/what they would have sacrificed to which deity. And their books are heavy with answers to those questions – which are exactly the ones we as writers need answers to – and light on all the cruft.

Finally, fables and mythology are an excellent resource not for cut-and-dry facts, but for a sense of what people believed, which themes inspired them, how they related to their gods. It’s one thing to be told that the Greek deities were more humanized and capricious than what, say, the Abrahamic faiths are used to. It’s entirely another to read about Zeus turning into an animal to seduce his target of the week.

Academic texts can be useful as well, of course, but for the purpose of writing qua writing, they’re usually just not as good as more ‘populist’ edutainment. But in the absence of other options, they can be a treasure trove of highly specific information. Love potsherds and carbon dating? Then you’ll love archaelogical studies.

In closing:

It’s not about the facts, although reciting facts with your fingers crooked just so (don’t forget the sacrificial goat) can protect you from pedantry.

It’s about facts in service of a good story, and I guarantee that story will be better if you take some time to flesh it out through research. History is richer – and stranger – than fiction. Steal shamelessly.


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