If you write fantasy or science fiction, what kind of research do you need to do and why?
I write historical fantasy, where the story is set in the cracks between what we know of the past. Some of my themes concern the differences between life then and now. At a pragmatic level, the more historical details I can get right, the more thoroughly readers are likely to enter into my story. People who write fantasy set in alternative versions of the past or the present (as in urban fantasy) likewise will use research to explore core themes and to build up the plausibility of their settings. Science Fiction authors want their science to be accurate for similar reasons, except for the devices they’ve invented for the purposes of the story. They also need plausibility for the rest of the setting and for that, they will draw on research into the past or the present, for everything from the organisation of society to practical details about the material used to make clothes.
Different writers have different research methods, as became clear in a panel I moderated at FantasyCon this year. My novel, Spellhaven (Mirror World Publishing, 2017) is set partly on an island city ruled by magicians and partly in England before and after the First World War. Most of the historical detail did not come from a specific programme of research but from books I’d read out of general interest. In fact, the story grew out of a fascination with aspects of life in Europe, before the War changed so much. I’d been reading about Diaghilev and the Ballet Russe, about Henry Irving, Bernard Shaw and the history of the theatre more generally. I wanted somehow to evoke the energy and excitement of those times, which is why my island city is full of unseen and powerful spirits, who must be entertained by all kinds of live shows.
Other writers on the FantasyCon Panel recommended working from primary sources, especially diaries and letters. Such sources can give a deeper insight into the mindset of the people who wrote them, as well as supplying the kind of quirky detail historians seldom mention. Some researchers attend historical re-enactments, to find out, for example, just how hot and uncomfortable medieval armour can be.
Then there’s the internet. Wikipedia is a good starting point for information on specific facts, though worth checking with other sources. The internet is also a portal, these days, to all sorts of online material. My next novel, Ghosts and Exiles, due out in 2018, is set in London in the 1930s. For that, I did some browsing in the Times Archive online, which I was able to access free through my local public library membership. I didn’t pick out any specific details but the newspaper reports helped me with the general atmosphere of the period. Online research doesn’t comes naturally to me, however, and tends to be a limited add-on. For immersion in any subject, I turn to books, in hard copy for preference. Other people, especially those who have grown up with the internet, may work differently and rely more on online resources.
The main impression I took away from the FantasyCon Panel, from audience contributions as well as the other Panel members, was that people enjoyed research for its own sake, not just as a chore for what they could get out of it. Deciding when to stop may be more difficult as a result but writers have to fight that battle all the time, in order to produce any kind of end result.
Sandra Unerman is a retired Government lawyer, who lives in London. She has attended Milford several times and has an MA in Creative Writing (SF and Fantasy) from Middlesex University. Her novel, Spellhaven was published this year by Mirror World and her most recent short stories are in Aurora Wolf online for September and the anthology Fall into Fantasy, Cloaked Press, 2017. She is a member of Clockhouse London Writers.