/* new */

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Sometimes It Takes a Village

It really chaps me when I hear an aspiring writer say,

I write fantasy because you can make your world be whatever you want. If you write science fiction, you have to learn all that science; if you write a historical or contemporary or mystery, you have to do so much research. Fantasy is so much easier.

Bite your tongue! It's no wonder so many readers (and other writers!) don't take fantasy seriously! So why does this strike me so hard at this point?

This has been a tough week. I am writing the culminating scene of my first arc, where the spooky music [I hope!!] we've been hearing bursts into action and leads us onward. I was delighted when I got the idea to merge this bit of excitement with the idea of a world on the brink of great discoveries--the launch of the Destinne, a ship of exploration. But after enjoying writing several little incidents and encounters that lead us to think Something Terrible Is Going To Happen, I had to actually write the big scene. And instantly, I got into trouble.

First, I woke up Monday morning with the realization that I was going to launch a ship of exploration, but the city where I've been working is in the middle of Sabria! Duh. Well, it does sit on a river. [World-building reminder: cities grow up in places where there are resources. Castles are built where there is something worth defending or someone you need to keep in or keep out.] I did not want to move Merona to the seaside, so I needed to learn something about river ports and ocean-going ships. Most rivers can't support that large a vessel. So count a day for hunting the internet for examples of inland ports - London is a great example. Hmmm...tidal influences on rivers...how far inland?

And then, of course, I needed to know what kind of ship this was. Fortunately a friend had given me a book called The History of Ships. This is a pretty dense little book that tells me a lot more about ships than I really want to know. My characters aren't going to sail on one...or are they? Where will we be as the Destinne sets sail...?

Anyway, I settle on a Portugese caravel as the model of the Destinne. Caravels were the ships most often used in voyages of exploration, as it happens. The Nina and the Pinta were caravels, as were Vasco da Gama's and Bartholomew Diaz's ships--the names take shape out of fourth grade history... But if Portier is going to be an eyewitness to this ship's launch as well as the Events surrounding it, then I need to know what he sees. It is time to call in help.

I am fortunate to know a small group of fellow writers, some published, some un-, who enjoy sharing information and expertise. One of these lovely people happens to have just done a lot of ship research for her own book. And another happens to be an expert on sailing, as well as a history major and Anglophile and avid reader of novels set in the Age of Sail. What is "warping" a ship? What is different about dealing with a river as opposed to a seaport? [Thank you, thank you, Susan and Di.]

And I learn that Elizabethan era river ports are not necessarily what we think of as harbors today, so I go online and find resources that tell me a lot about the history of the port of London. [Oh my gosh, there is so much! You can see maps of the port listing whose wharves were whose or you can read letters from American businessmen in the 1700s who come to London to buy stuff to ship home... Astonishing the resources that are out there!] OK, merchants' wharves exist. And when I need to place my characters somewhere not on the ship of exploration itself, but to watch it go, I start reading about pleasure barges that have been used on the Thames since before Elizabeth's day. Which also tells me something about what kind of river Sabria's River Ley must be - not rough and tumble, but wide and deep and placid.

If fantasy is so easy and needs no research, then how the heck am I going to put my reader vividly at Portier's side as he sees events unfold? And how am I going to devise a magical event to awe and surprise both spectators and readers, while feeling right? For as soon as I get a few nautical details on the page (not too much, even after several days of research, I want only just enough to make it real) I have to figure out the Event itself.

Two days of speculating, theorizing, woodling, rearranging, investigating motives, trolling through a book called Ancient Inventions [Did you know that hand grenades were used during the Crusades or that Aristotle wrote about divers using underwater breathing apparatus?] and the like lead me to the conclusion that I need science first, maybe science that looks like magic. That means I call in my primary scientific consultant, the Spouse. [He is worth an entire series of posts of his own, but let us say that this is a person of wide-ranging interests in all things mechanical, electrical, automotive, anatomical, and scientific - especially the odd.]

I present my problem. I need this under these constraints. I sort of thought maybe something like... An hour's discussion came up with a great way to cause the highly visible attack that I want.

Now it is Saturday and after tweaking the "gathering of all the people scene" yet again, I am ready to warp the Destinne, and unfurl the jib to bring her around, while Portier stands right under the artifact that will threaten to annihilate King Phillipe yet again. And then my broody sorcerer will... No, I'm not telling.

Thanks, everyone. I want my fantasy to feel real and I can't do it without you.


Anna said...

Not telling! Wah!! :)
Yes, fine... I'll be patient...

Even from the hobby-writing I've done, I know it's no easy thing to write fantasy! At the least, logic has to apply, and your post is a great example of taking the care to craft a book worth reading.

As for Fantasy's rep... a co-worker (who had interrupted me reading Kay's "The Summer Tree" at my desk at lunch twice in a week) asked what kind of book it was when we were setting up a room for a meeting, and then went on to prompt, "Romantic, adventure, mystery...?"
Since I kind of think she's not a reading person (except maybe for those business books that I really can't ever make myself read), I thought about it for a second, then answered "Yes." Because that seemed to do it better justice than just saying Fantasy.

carolwriter said...

Great answer!

Yep, The Summer Tree has all of those - plus myth and the ancient feel of a historical novel. Say "fantasy" and many people think "Harry Potter, kids, monsters," or they think erotica, or even space ships - all of which could certainly be fantasy. Sigh - our need for classification gets us in trouble sometimes.

Barbara Friend Ish said...

I may be in the minority, but I adore the research aspect of writing fantasy. I love digging deeply enough into any "real-world" thing I want to use to twist it to my worldbuilding purposes. It's the really obscure stuff that yields the details which make worlds, scenes, and characters come alive--not only for the reader, but for me. (And I'm just that big a geek, and collecting obscure and otherwise-useless knowledge is FUN.)

Yeah, there are days when I chastise myself for the loss of forward motion--but I find that everything I take the time to learn in support of a story eventually bears fruit: if not in that story, then in another.

I don't write fantasy because it's easy. I think one of the main reasons I've stayed with it as long as I have is because I never stop learning, and because it's astonishingly challenging to do it well.

carolwriter said...

Yes, it's true that research turns up marvelous nuggets to add verisimilitude to a fantasy world - everyone should use verisimilitude in a sentence once a day. I just want to be using not finding.

Anonymous said...

I recently discovered your books, and passed them on to another friend who is also an avid reader. A few days ago she emailed me to say that she feels that you are not so much writing a book, as you are transfering a dream that you have had to the page. You create the world so vividly for her that she actually thinks you are channeling an alternate reality.

While I don't think you are channeling an alternate reality, I have read enough awkward writers to be impressed that your research serves the story rather than the story highlighting the research.

carolwriter said...

Rochelle, I love your friend's comment about the dream. What's funny is that I am so much NOT a dreamer. Or rather, I just don't remember them at all. People who dream stories (like one good friend of mine) just astound me. If I'm channeling, then just picture me as the siphon hose - it passes right on through! But, as my readers can tell, I do love to THINK about parallel realities, eg. Aeginea. I still think that's one reason Platform 9 3/4 appeals so much - I always wanted to go to that "in-between" place.

Carmen Webster Buxton said...

Nancy Kress says that writing is taking the 3-D , multi-sensory movie that's playing in your head and transferring it to the page in a way that conveys the experience to the reader.

And I find I do more research for fantasy than for science fiction. My science fiction tends to be far-future where I don't worry about how things work. I don't really think we can predict how technology will advance. But we do know a lot about the past. For BAG OF TRICKS I had to do research to find out when Europeans started using forks (basically, the Renaissance). Did you know the English laughed at forks, at first. Why would anyone bother when they had a God-given "fork" at the end of each arm?

carolwriter said...

I learned about the fork, too, but I didn't read the comment. Priceless.

Some kinds of research would be the same for both eras. In both cases (historical-era fantasy vs far-future sf) you might need anthropological research, eg. what drives people/races to leave their home territory and take someone else's, or psychological, eg. how do people react when they are sleep deprived whether they are stuck in a space ship or a dungeon. IN some cases it's just a matter of what subjects you want to study - or technical, eg. how sailing ships worked vs how genetic engineering works. And then you extrapolate, using your imagination.

Anonymous said...

For sci-fi, even in the distant future, it is well worth knowing where science is now. there is a sci-fi writer who I won't read anything by because his lack of scientific understanding is obvious. His story took place in the distant future, but a key plot point was that they could not do X. As a scientist, I couldn't go, wait, we can do x and it is fairly trivial thing. Furthermore, they could do y, and imagining how you could possibly do y without x is nearly impossible (if you could come up with a method, you'd make a million dollars).
I think fantasy research is actually pretty different from the research for other genres. It is similar to how when my friend sews, she can create her own patterns, mix and match pieces and end up with beautiful things. In order to do that, you have to have a much more thorough understanding of how everything works. But technically, you didn't need a pattern. Or, you don't need to look up a boat, you just need to know enough about sailing, water types, construction, etc to create a believable boat. :)

carolwriter said...

Exactly so, Tami. You don't have to know every detail about the Bedouin, for example. But if you are going to write about a nomadic, pastoral desert people, you ought to learn about their culture. And your point about the necessity of knowing current science in order to invent future is right there.

Jessica Strider said...

I find writing fantasy challenging. What other genre allows you to create your own history, astonomy, mythology, geography, etc? In addition to the characters and plotline? And making sure everything works logically is so much fun. I'm currently working on a trilogy. There's a lot of time that I don't cover but as it's between books I still have to know that on this date this war started and this character's grandfather treated his father in this manner so now he acts a certain way (even if his father and grandfather don't enter the story).

Worldbuilding is a magical experience. It's a lot of fun to do, but I wouldn't call it easy.

carolwriter said...

Unfortunately, there are those who think that the freedom to "invent your own geology or astronomy or culture" means one can just make up anything. Ignoring the law of gravitational attraction by having a planet with three moons, but earth-like tides is a sure way to lose all credibility with a lot of your audience. Creating worlds where everyone speaks the same language and no one works for a living will allow readers to ignore the truths you may write about particular characters or situations, unless you've built a chain of logic to explain why such unlikely things are the case.

Anonymous said...

I think writing "good" fantasy is harder than writing science fiction. With science fiction, you have a world, basically the present modern-day world, to extrapolate from. That forces certain choices, customs and even word choice based on how the extrapolation is done.. but you still have that basic modern-day world. For good fantasy, you're not only creating an entirely new world, but a new history. How that history is crafted affects how the inhabitants of that fantasy world operate.

Now, I guess, for an average fantasy, all you need is a dragon and a farmboy who is really some bloodline descendant of something or someone special. As long as the farmboy doesn't say something unTolkeinish like "Dude, you're a gnarly dragon", the author is fine. I mean, really, if I was an evil lord, I'd either capture or kill every dragon because I know some farmboy would find a dragon right before I marry the beautiful but innocent princess and come kill off my lieutenants one by one, then set its sights on me!


Anonymous said...

Fantasy -- easy? No research? Here's a list of some of the topics I've researched since I started writing fantasy.

the history of:

- medicine
- trade + shipping
- travel, horses, speed of sea/overland transport
- crafts and trades
- law and statesmanship
- religion
- mythology
- Ancient World, especially Celts + Germanic tribes, Rome + Byzantium, Egypt
- measuring + calendars
- architecture
- technology, tools, and household goods
- armor, weapons, military strategy, leadership, and combat styles
- farming, food, cooking

natural + social studies:

- plants, especially medicinal herbs
- poisons (plant and animal) + symptoms of poisoning + possible treatment
- phases of the moon and exactly where it appears in the night sky at which time of night, seen from which latitude
- climates + landscapes + animals + plants + which of these are native to which climate/landscape
- personality types
- symptoms of several diseases, such a lung cancer, consumption, etc.
- lots of books on creative writing
- even a bit of chemistry (enough to be able to say exactly how much silver, in kg, one needs to cast a silver pentacle of 5m diameter.)
- peoples and customs
- languages

Questions one encounters during writing fantasy range from: when was the spinning wheel invented to how does one lay siege to a city. From: how long does it take to die from deadly nightshade? to: It's March, what would they have to sell at the market? From: How long does it take to hand-spin enough wool + weave it into cloth + sew a simple tunic out of it? to: Is it possible to extract snake venom and apply it to a dagger? How long until it loses its potency? When were antivenoms invented? ...

I write fantasy, not historical novels, because I like to be able to build my own worlds and not be restricted by the history of a specific country/period. Especially confining would be the dominating role of the Catholic Church and the narrow definition of the female role. Also, I am so much of a perfectionist that I would dread getting even the minutest detail wrong. Fantasy allows me much more freedom, also in regard to which of the above interests (or more) my story explores. Some people love horses, others think it's interesting to see how swords or pieces of armor are forged, so they will include much about these topics in their stories. I don't know much about horses and only included as much as was absolutely needed, nor do I show an armoror at his work, but I am very much interested in ancient law and statesmanship, in mythology and history of medicine, to name just a few things.

In science fiction (at least in hard scifi) the author must be interested in modern technology and astrophysics, there's no way around it.

Sorry about the longish post...

Carol wrote: "Creating worlds where everyone speaks the same language..."

Haha, I absolutely HATE that. In some fantasy, even the demons speak English among each other. I love Charmed, but e.g. in the first-season episode with the grimlocks, the blind man who had been captured by them as a boy tells Phoebe that he remembers the two grimlocks saying something about "auras." In a serious fantasy novel I would not be able to overlook something like that, but I don't take Charmed serious that way.



carolwriter said...

Love your list, Anya! Yes to every one of your points.

Perrin said...

Fantasy is easier than other genres?! Ha. As you've just described, it is in fact in many ways harder. I think it is absolutely more difficult specifically BECAUSE you don't have a world already set out. We all know how the (real) world works. We can read about how it used to work/be, and place any old story in any of those times. But creating a new, different world THAT WOULD WORK, and a story that could (possibly only) happen there is so much more difficult.

Aside from the complexity/difficulty, fantasy has the opportunity at least to be so much more creative and original. And THAT is the great thing about writing fantasy. Not that it's easier, because it's not. But that there is so much more opportunity.

carolwriter said...

Exactly so. That's what makes it so much fun to write!

Gabby-Lily Raines said...

I'm slowly starting to read bits and bobs here and thought to check out the 'world building' posts.

Comments like that make me want to bring out my somewhat ever present nerf bat.

I like writing and prefer the fantasy, sci-fi genre (so does the friend I write with whenever we hook up) and between the two of us we've looked into the following:

History, mostly medieval (me)
Herb lore (her)
Anatomy and Physiology (me)
Mythology (both of us, different cultures)
Psychiatrically related topics (mostly me)

And we also ask each other stuff about topics the other might know about (like I might ask her about herb lore, or she'll ask me about history (as she puts it, I at least know where to start looking)).

carolwriter said...

It is great to have a partner to explore with. Looks like you have a good list to start with. It's those odd things (like blood-letting instruments and renaissance chairs) that start to add up! Halleluiah for the internet!

Gabby-Lily Raines said...

Yes it is and yes indeed. *wide grin*

It's certainly good for the "need to find this out right now to make sure I have it right, rather than lose my train of thought by diving into my reference section" moments :)

Gabby-Lily Raines said...

Yes it is and yes indeed. *wide grin*

It's certainly good for the "need to find this out right now to make sure I have it right, rather than lose my train of thought by diving into my reference section" moments :)