A number of years ago I was taking a creative writing course and we had a section on research. I dragged my feet through the entire unit. “I don’t need this,” I thought at the time. “I write fantasy. I don’t need to research things, I’m going to create everything I need!”
It’s a laughable notion, now that I look back. Just in the last two weeks, I’ve researched:
Styles of poetry. Arabian horses (physical features, mannerisms, care, breeding). Elephants, and elephant cavalry tactics. Middle eastern mythology and religion. Monsoons & related weather patterns. Harems. Asian demons. Several different types of weapons and their uses in combat. Pregnancy (stages, “symptoms,” timeframes). Buddhist funeral customs. And probably others that I forgot to catalog.
No matter what you’re writing, it is critical to be well researched. I’m sure you’ve heard the old adage, “write what you know.” I don’t necessarily hold to that–but I do hold to the belief that you should know what you write. All too often I read books,particularly fantasy and science fiction, where it’s clear the writer has only the vaguest, most casual understanding of something they’re writing about. Even if it’s just something in passing, lacking or incorrect details can shatter the realism for your reader.
It doesn’t matter if it’s fantasy or science fiction or indeed whatever you are writing. The true beauty is in the details. In this regard, your research will make or break your story.
So how to go about research? There are many resources available. Here are a few that I use.
I’m not going to lie, I often start at Wikipedia. Believe me, I know the faults and pitfalls of Wikipedia. However, if I’m looking into something for which I have absolutely no frame of reference, Wikipedia often will point me in the right direction to continue my research.
I will also often blindly Google the topic. (I love starting to type questions into Google, and watching what preformed queries start to pop up.) Sometimes this brings up great resources right away. However, it often requires sifting through a lot of random sites of questionable authenticity to find your gold nuggets of awesomeness. [Side note: I recommend bookmarking sites that are particularly useful to you, so you can find them easily if you need them again.]
YouTube has become a surprising resource for me. For instance, when I was looking around trying to find some new weaponry, I hit upon a treasure trove of videos, mainly martial arts demonstrations, that showed the use and application of the weapons I was researching. The videos gave me some fantastic ideas that made their way into the book.
Blogs are a great way to connect with experts on the subject(s) you are researching. When I was trying to find more information about elephant cavalry tactics, I ended up in the forums of a history blog, where a group of historians were discussing how elephants had been used in historical battles.
Also, don’t be afraid to ask said experts. I ended up emailing a trainer of Arabian horses, who gave me some great details–too many, in fact, more than I could include in the book. But what I was able to include was much richer for having had the brief discussion with a real person who knows what she’s talking about.
The library? I find most of what I need on the internet, but sometimes the library has more in-depth resources that can better guide you.
It takes a combination of these resources for me to find everything I need for my books. But over the years I have learned the critical importance of research, even when writing fantastical fiction. Though I write of other places and peoples, they still have endless similarities with us, and our experience. It is those connections and those seemingly insignificant details that help your readers feel at home in your worlds.