In the previous articles, I’ve looked at researching locations for the modern world and in the nineteenth century. That should be fairly straightforward – you can look things up and find things out. Perhaps you can even get inspiration. You can’t do that for fantasy, at least not in the same way. I mean, if you’re making up a world with dwarves, elves, dragons and goblins, surely you can’t research a location? You underestimate the madness of this research junkie.
Why Do Research for Fantasy?
I am incredibly lazy. If I’m working with a fantasy location, I don’t want to work too hard trying to remember what I’ve set up. And that is why I use a little research to pin things down. My fantasy novel, King’s Silver isn’t currently in print, but while I may have sketched out a rough idea of what was where on the back of an envelope, I used ideas from modern locations if I was trying to work out things like weather, sunset times, landscapes, food etc. I have never had a lesson in geography in any classroom (there were a few issues with my education) so I don’t feel able to use ‘proper’ geography. However I can look at places in our world and take ideas from that. And if I get it wrong, I can say that it’s meant to be like that in my world.
If I use a location from our world as a benchmark, I don’t need to worry about inventing too much. If I want a world with mighty quests from frozen tundra to steamy jungles I need to look at a place perhaps like Samarkand. It was one of the great cities on the Silk Road and so you could go north to the Russian steppe, south over the mountains to the jungles of India, east to the ancient and isolated civilisation of China or you could go west to the green and busy lands of Europe. You don’t have to use those particular routes. What you can do is have a quick check to see the sort of weather that Samarkand has, the seasons, sunset times, local wildlife and even local food. That can be imported wholesale into the fantasy city of Tarsh or could be used as a starting point. You don’t have to worry about building something from scratch.
For example, it’s 10th November (or the fantasy equivalent – there’s a calendar creator on rollforfantasy.com) so Kurt the Barbarian knows that the days are getting shorter and the longest night will soon be here. As the sun sets at 5.21pm (or the fantasy equivalent), Kurt the Barbarian pulls his cloak around him. It’s made of the fur of a Himalayan brown bear he hunted nearby and killed with his own hands. The weather is cool and dry, with a light wind ruffling his long hair and he is glad that Gwendolyn the Healer has a new cloak made from Angora wool from the local goats. She is back in their dwelling preparing a meal of rice with beef, mutton or goat and dried fruit, seasoned with exotic spices (I checked Samarkand cookery and the food looks amazing. I also checked on the wildlife in the area, Uzbekistan, and found a site that included mountain goats, ravens and ceratopsian dinosaurs. The dinosaurs caused some concern but perhaps it could be a plot hook).
Perhaps you want something a little more intimate. It could be a mystery set in a small town, perhaps with a feel of Tolkien’s Shire. Tolkien was an Oxford Professor, so let’s look at that. Sunset on 10th November in Oxford, England is at 4.22pm, and the rain is falling steadily in the chilly air. Kurt the Barbarian’s fur cloak is made from the pelts of wolves that he hunted alone in the wildlands but Gwendolyn the Healer has a cloak made of good local wool from the many sheep on the mountains to the west. She’s preparing a meal from bacon, barley and split peas.
On the other hand, you could consider something more maritime. I’ve randomly picked a date of 1200CE for the time to keep things consistent. There’s no reason why you can’t use the knowledge and inventions of, say, Oxford at 1200CE but the climate and general geography (altered to fit your plot) of the Caribbean. Kurt the Seafaring Barbarian has sailed into the harbour of the equivalent of Havana, grateful to be home as the storm season is ending. The sun sets slowly at the fantasy equivalent of 5.46pm and as the weather is warm, Kurt the Seafaring Barbarian has no need for more than his cotton tunic as he strides through the narrow streets to where Gwendolyn the Healer is preparing a pork stew, spicy with chillies and served with cornbread. As an aside, I thought cotton wasn’t indigenous to the Americas, but I checked just in case and the earliest fragment known comes from Mexico, closely followed by Pakistan. I love learning new things.
All of this information has been freely available and instead of trying to remember what I decided about the food or local animals, I can just refer back. I’m not doing this as a research project and I’m not getting marked for accuracy. If I say that there are tomatoes in a Medieval European setting in my world, then let there be swathes of tomatoes, because this is a fantasy world and as long as I keep things consistent, it doesn’t matter. In my flawed view, consistency helps the reader settle down into the plot and enjoy things. If Kurt the Barbarian hands Gwendolyn the Healer some chillies as a rare and exotic spice, then they shouldn’t be sold by the bucket in every small marketplace in the next chapter – unless it’s part of the plot.
And if you enjoy creating worlds with all the fun of plotting rivers and mountains and telling the story of why things as they are – go for it! If the setting is based on Ancient Rome but you have potatoes (introduced to Europe in the sixteenth century and long after the fall of Rome), then let them have fries by the bucketful! It’s your world and your story and the heck with anything else. I’d love you to share your world with me. And I’d love to hear any comments on thoughts of my ramblings on this matter – all are welcome.
You can find the rest of the posts on this here – Research and the Author, Collected Posts