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Thursday, May 24, 2012

Hey, it's my world...Research for fantasy

The other day I wandered into a Twitter conversation about world building and just what is important in it. Should you worry about accuracy when you have made up your own world or should you just say," Hey, it's my world and I can do what I want with it!"? I can't do better than stick in a link to an article written many years ago by Poul Anderson, On Thud And Blunder" I read it in hard copy, can't recall where, but thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I can share it with you, and if you're wondering this about your own writing I do urge you to check it out.

 Poul Anderson is one of my favourite writers because there's an Anderson for whatever you're in the mood for. Hard SF? Sure. Space opera, high fantasy, historical fantasy, time travel, humour, he wrote it all. He was a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism, where he wore armour and competed in tournaments. He knew what horses could and couldn't do. So if anyone knew about world building it was him. And the point he makes in this article is that even if you're writing something set in your own world it will be based, to some extent, on this one, and that there are some things that are just practical common sense- like horses not being furry machines that can be ridden hard all night. And ships not getting you swiftly across the sea. And a city that doesn't have electricity being extremely dark at night, making it difficult for your barbarian hero to rush through the streets followed by the palace guards. For those who think their hero can slice a head or a leg off in one stroke, he suggests trying to do this with hanging meat.

 It's strange when people who wouldn't dream of writing science fiction without massive research think they can write fantasy without any, because, hey, there's magic. Even magic needs to have rules. Also, as long as you're creating a world with humans and terrestrial animals and plants, you really have to consider things that could and couldn't happen here.

And then there's culture. If you're going to write a story set in a version of medieval Europe, say, you need to realise how much of the lifestyle was based on the climate, the culture and religion. You can't for example, have an Arabic-style culture in a country with the climate of Norway. That might seem obvious when it's mentioned, but it's amazing how many novels are set in a land with a mishmash of cultures that don't mix. In one novel I read recently, the aristocrats in a hot country dressed and acted like those of eighteenth century France.

 You also can't leave out religion. The medieval world was overflowing with it. I remember reading one novel that was set in a country that suggested sixteenth century Europe, in great detail, to the extent that I was annoyed that I couldn't place it - but no one in it seemed to go to church or practise religion in any way. And that's just not going to work, because there would be things in the lifestyle that depend on religion. If you want to create your own religion, fine. Some top writers have done this. But make sure you create a culture that would go with it.

If you're going to take liberties, take liberties with a society you have researched. I read a LOT of books for Wolfborn. I didn't use anywhere near all of the information in the final draft, but it was enough that I could feel comfortable with the world I was creating and the world from which it came. I did take liberties, but I knew what I was taking liberties with. Sometimes my editor would say gently,"Sue, you can't do that. You KNOW that was not around in the twelfth century," and even though it wasn't the real twelfth century, I'd rewrite. Actually, I was flattered that she'd forgotten it wasn't this world. In fact, a number of reviewers forgot it wasn't this world, despite the three moons! By the way, I researched those too, to make sure I didn't get the science too wrong, even though it was a fantasy novel. True, I kept it vague. There wasn't a lot of information. (Actually, I read only recently that we might have had two moons at one time) Hell, I even joined the SCA many years ago and learned what you can and can't do in armour, just so my fantasy would work better!

 If you've read George R.R.Martin's Song of Ice And Fire, you'll notice that his world feels very real, because despite the strange climate cycle, he's used real history as his background. Even the armour - there's plate armour in the south and ring mail in the icy north and that makes sense; the folk living away from the centre of commerce would probably still be using grandad's old chain mail; armour would be expensive! He has created his own religions to go with this world, but in the context they work. So if you're going to write an epic, do make sure you've researched the society on which it's based, even if you have to join the SCA and get hit on your helmed head with a rattan sword. It will be worth the effort.


Sean Wright said...

I have tried constructing a fantasy world without religion where there is formal magic instead. It's an interesting exercise in coming to understand how much religion forms part of our language and concepts. Who do your characters curse when there is no Odin?

I think that you are right in that if a writer is going to use a culture like 17th Century France they can omit religion only if they replace it with something that would generate the same cultural circumstances, foundations. From where does the king queen draw their mandate to rule, from where to attitudes to men woman and property flow etc.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Exactly, Sean! And if you aren't king by right of God and being anointed, there has to be another thing that gives you the right to rule, but you have to make sure it fits the culture or change the culture to fit. Formal magic might work and would be interesting. Are you an aristocrat because you can do magic? If so, what would happen to a child of a noble family who couldn't do magic? Is magic holy?

Tolkien's world had no religion because Man had not fallen and so did not need Christ. But it was steeped in religion anyway, with lembas and miruvor as the sacrament, etc.

alberridge said...

Another great post, Sue. Terry Pratchett wrote brilliantly about the need for fantasy to be 'consistent with its own world' and I do think historical research is a key part of that. It's a way of learning how human beings coped in the past with our own invented situations, and that gives us the mindset that grows naturally from that world.

Example: on one forum a writer was asking an army veteran for techniques whereby his hero could conceal the smoke of his camp fire from the enemy in a fantasy story set in a 16th century type world. The answer, of course, was that he didn't NEED to, because in a 16th century world there would have been little fires all over those woods and the enemy would have thought nothing of them. The writer was researching the technique - but he should have been researching the mindset.

I think your post should be compulsory reading for fantasy writers!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Thanks for saying that, Louise! :) I agree about Terry Pratchett. There's no doubt his Discworld is based on thorough research. It's very British in the regions such as the Ramtops, but given that his novels often have fun with different countries of our world, he has to know how those functioned historically. Even Ankh-Morpork, which is a mishmash, is a believable mishmash.

You know, I would probably have just assumed that fires needed to be concealed and had my characters shiver all night. :-) That forum, whatever it is, sounds useful.

If you want handy info about how to hurt your hero, I strongly recommend Jordyn Redwood's blog (I really need tout up a link on the side of this page, but I did give it a plug a while back.)

Satima Flavell said...

An excellent post, Sue. As our learned friend Gillian Polack once reminded me (and I paraphrase here)- if you change even one small thing in a society based on a particular historical period, it will have ramifications throughout the society and culture.

The example I give to renegade writers is this: if paper had not been invented, Caxton would have had to print on vellum and the entire economy would have been different. With so many young animals being slaughtered there would have quickly been a dearth of breeding stock and of mature animals for beef and mutton, which would push up the price of those meats and also mean a shortage of leather!

Sue Bursztynski said...

Ah, Satima, such is the stuff of alternative universe fiction! :-) AU is another of my favourite forms of spec fic. I'd love to write some one of these days, but it must be pretty difficult precisely because of the domino effect you describe. I've had this idea lurking in my head for some years - what if the White Ship disaster hadn't happened? It only happened because the sailors were given booze from a farewell party the heir to the throne of England and his mates were having, according to one book I read, and got drunk and crashed the ship. A large chunk of the young nobles of England drowned and so did the Prince. There would have been no civil war between Stephen and Matilda, no Henry II (not as king, anyway), no Richard the Lionheart running off to the Crusades, a different dynasty altogether and different overseas policies, probably a different world altogether in our own time.

But my beef is with people who just don't bother to do their research on our world before creating their own.

Sue Bursztynski said...

There was a rather charming YA novel I read, can't recall what it was, where the heroine time travels by magic and finds herself in the chamber of Edward VI, who thinks she's a heavenly messenger. She realises that his ill health is due to about a million allergies. This she remedies by advising him to get rid of the dogs in his chambers, avoid white bread and other such stuff. As a result, he survives and turns out to be a lot like his father and not having his father's good qualities. Elizabeth Tudor never becomes Queen. The girl returns to the present and finds everyone speaking Spanish! :-)

Sean Wright said...

I also think that if you are going to have a low technology society that is human then I don't think that you can get around having a religion(s) or some sort of belief in "outside" forces.

I think our evolution has resulted in a tendency to believe, to see patterns and make inferences about cause and effect where there are none - from relatively simple animism right up to complex systems and theology.

Satima Flavell said...

I'd like to read that Edward VI book, Sue - if you remember what it is, do let me know!

Sue Bursztynski said...

If I ever do remember I willl let you know. It's at our senior campus where I can't get at it easily, though, so I may never remember.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Looked it up on Google under "Time Travel Edward VI". Ghu, I'm good!:-) The book is Timeless Love by Judith O'Brien.