A Fantasy Writer's Guide to Research.
by Sabrina Lozier
When many people consider fantasy writers, the last thing they’re likely thinking about is research. After all, don’t fantasy writers just use their imagination to make everything up? Well, yes, sort of. But also, no. The truth is the best fantasy writers do their research and pull real-world details to incorporate into their work.
But where exactly does a fantasy writer start when it comes to research? Well first off, most fantasy writers -- when they get an initial idea -- will have some idea of where they would like to begin or what to base their idea around. For the sake of this guide we will call it the Golden Nugget. This Golden Nugget is often the tipping point for writers that moves them from the idea phase into the I-have-to-start-working-on-this-right-now! phase.
That being said, there are many things a fantasy writer should consider before they begin drafting, hence, research. Now the word can seem scary but don’t let it fool you, research for a fantasy novel can be incredibly fun and interesting! The primary thing fantasy writers will want to focus on while researching (depending on their idea of course) is worldbuilding.
Authentic worldbuilding is incredibly important to any given story and can often be the difference between success and failure for a piece of fantasy. But before we dive into the different aspects of worldbuilding there is one crucial aspect to consider; will your story be high/primary fantasy or secondary/low fantasy?
According to Austin Carmody, a fantasy blogger, “The primary difference between high fantasy and low fantasy is the setting. In high fantasy, the story takes place in a secondary fictional setting that is utterly independent of the real world. In low fantasy, the story takes place in a familiar, real-world setting.” Determining your genre is important as it will determine the level of research and worldbuilding required. For the purposes of this guide, I will focus on high fantasy. Now, onto the fun part.
Geography & Climate
What does the physical world look like? Consider the landscape, geographical features, and weather. From there, begin researching all you can about those landscapes around the world. Watch documentaries, flip through National Geographic, google pictures and read articles.
Resources: Google Earth, Virtual Tours, Traveling to the place (If possible)
Another important aspect that is crucial to worldbuilding, the type of government. Will your world have a monarchy? A Theocracy? A presidency? An oligarchy? It will be important to decide and begin researching there. If you choose monarchy, you will want to look into the royal hierarchy. You may want to research both good and bad Kings and Queens throughout history. Who ruled if they were assassinated? Who was the next important government official under the King? All these things and more you will need to research to build an authentic government.
Resources: Nationalgeographic.org, thebestschools.org
Religion & Belief Systems
Even in a fantasy world people are not without their beliefs. While your world may or may not include an organized religion per se, it is an important aspect to keep in mind. Do the people believe in spiritual things? Do they have a pantheon of gods, or a single god? You can begin by looking into real religions around the world and seeing what other people believe to create or inspire any religions or beliefs in your world.
Resources: Religious websites, religious creeds or manifestos, religious texts (Bible, Torah, Qaran)
Mythology & Lore
Perhaps one of the most fun things to research, mythology and lore is often the backbone for fantasy stories. While much of it is made up by the author, oftentimes writers will pull from real myths and legends around the world. Norse mythology is very different from Greek mythology.
There are different gods, different legendary heroes, and different mythical creatures. Researching your desired mythology will help ensure Thor isn’t talking to his brother Poseidon.
Resources: Classical Mythology A to Z by Annette Giesecke, documentaries, windows2universe.org
Whether your story is set in ancient Egypt or in the distant future, understanding the level of technology in your world will be critical for bringing authenticity to your story. Technology may indeed consist of high-tech gadgets, but technology is also concerned with the weapons a primitive tribe would use in battle or the methods that farmers use to plow their crops. Determining the level of technology within your world will help you research crucial aspects of your story that will provide the accuracy that readers seek. The type of research you do will depend heavily on your subject.
Resources: Documentaries and YouTube videos, books, museums, archives (physical and electronic).
Carmody, Austin. High Fantasy vs. Low Fantasy: A Detailed Guide, Fantasybookfanatic.com. https://fantasybookfanatic.com/high-fantasy-vs-low-fantasy-a-detailed-guide/
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