The Importance of Research in Fantasy
I know what you’re thinking: fantasy as a genre invites the reader to suspend their belief. After all, few people truly expect to enter a cave and discover a live dragon inside sitting on a horde of treasure. Many of us accept that magic, at least in the forms seen in many books, does not exist in our world. Unicorns, mermaids, faeries, and many other creatures that populate thousands of fantasy worlds are not something we would find during a walk in the woods or a swim in the ocean. Fantasy invites the reader to explore the mythical, the magical, and the impossible.
Research in fantasy is important because there are usually aspects of the fantasy world that mirror our own world.
Unless everything you are creating is new and innovative, there are going to be parts of what you create that will have similarities to something that exists in our own world. We’ll walk through a few of these and see how those aspects can cause a knowledgeable reader to pause and shake their head.
The horses your characters ride
To many of us, a horse is a horse. Sure, we know about mares and stallions, and maybe have heard the term dun and geldings and could sprinkle those in occasionally. We know there is a saddle and a pommel, a bridle and reins. That a walk is slower than a canter, which is slower than a trot, which is slower than a gallop. And we probably feel like that is enough to write any scene in which a horse makes an appearance. With some readers, that is more than enough to get by. But a reader who is knowledgeable about horses can and will complain about your ignorance when they spot it.
And there are plenty of articles that a quick Google Search can turn up to help you identify the common errors a fantasy writer makes regarding horses. These include how far a horse can travel, how long they can gallop, the noises they make, the severity of a shin splint, the time it takes to go from untrained at riding to being good at riding, horse personalities, and many others. So even if you get the size and description right for the visuals of your horse, there are many other pitfalls you can fall into. An hour of research can equip you to avoid those common pitfalls, at least.
The construction/function of the castles your characters visit
This is a small detail that can go a long way toward enhancing your story. Many castles that appear aren’t so vital in their details. You can get by with grey stone walls that tower in the sky, with crenelated walls and spires. You can get by with sentries along the walls and a portcullis or drawbridge and moat. If nothing happens in the castle except for a brief visit, this could be enough.
The problem comes in when your castle plays a larger role. For example, the enemy comes and besieges the castle. This isn’t an uncommon tactic, and can lead to some interesting situations for your characters. But if a siege, or any other vital event, takes place then it invites closer scrutiny toward your castle’s construction. Many castles were constructed with their defenses in mind. How soldiers are stationed, the location of barracks and food stores, and many other factors come into play. The lay of the land around the castle determined how and where it would be constructed. The presence of a river could allow a castle to get resupplied with food and/or men while under siege. There are many excellent details that would need to be considered, and in order to understand why things would be constructed or designed in a certain way, it would take some research. A few hours studying medieval castles, sieges, and other similar items would help provide an understanding that will elevate your own castle design on the page.
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The distance your characters travel in a day
This is the biggest one of the three being covered. Do you know how far the average person can travel in a day on foot? Hiking across uneven terrain? Riding on a horse? These are a few things that scratch the surface of travel in a book. Almost every fantasy book involves travel. Some writers who don’t want to research are smart enough to not attach specific times or distances to travel. They throw a map in there and let the reader make the connections and calculations to figure out time. Yet eventually things will catch up: changes in season, a desperate need to get to a certain place by a certain time before impending doom occurs, etc. Consistency is an essential thing when it comes to travel and location. This was a detail Tolkien was meticulous in his calculation for, and it paid off for him. His books are the shining example to use for travel and the passage of time.
This is the one area that should really gain a lot of your research time. Have charts breaking down how far a person can travel based on their method of travel. Have variables and how those can affect the distances, such as weather, size of group traveling, sickness, and more. Utilize those things as you design your map and write your world into existence. Your overall package with the fantasy world you create will be better for it.
So there you have just three examples of things in a fantasy book that require research and why those could be important. A great place for medieval information can be found on Allison D. Reid’s blog, as every Monday she puts out a Medieval Monday post covering aspects of daily life during that period. Every post in her archive can influence areas of a fantasy world as it is being built, so I highly recommend subscribing and checking them all out as part of your research regiment.
What other areas in fantasy are important to research before, or as, you are writing a book?