It’s amazing how much research can go into writing a book. Especially a fantasy novel. You would almost be inclined to think that fantasy would require less research than other genres, because, after all, the entire world in a fantasy novel is usually completely made-up!
And yet, there is a kind of “Old World” sort of feel that most fantasy authors are going for, and there are certain things that readers tend to get a bit picky over if they don’t feel “authentic.”
Thus, I have done some delving into some very strange research topics over the course of my writing career, and I thought you might be amused to see which topics I’ve had to look up and do some extensive reading on. (Now, some of this research involved going to The Google, others involved actual books, and a few have involved talking to people who know more about certain topics than I do).
Without further ado, the things I have researched for my various writing projects:
1. Did multiple-story buildings exist in the Middle Ages?
The answer to this one is, “Yes.” But by and large the tallest building was only 2-stories tall.
2. What was the origin of Apple Pie, and did it exist in the Middle Ages?
Nobody quite knows when apple pie was first invented, but it goes back quite a long ways. If you read about someone eating it in a fantasy novel set in a sort of Medieval Era… don’t question it, this dessert is one of the oldest in existence. Apparently the idea of baked apples in a crust has been appealing throughout the ages.
3. What sorts of circumstances could cause a small explosion in a pre-modern forge?
More things than you might expect. All sorts of dust becomes flammable and somewhat explosive if it gets in the air. Flour is one that actually blew up a forge in Tasmania (apparently it was a flour mill that closed down, and when a blacksmith set up shop, the flour imbedded in the stones of the building ignited and the entire place blew up). Coal gas can get built up in the bellows and cause the area around the fire to sort of “explode” and damage the bellows rather badly. Any sort of dampness thrust into the forge. Sealed containers (especially if they have liquid inside of them). Pretty crazy stuff.
4. Names of various articles of clothing throughout history.
I have a friend who was a clothing design major and I borrowed one of her old textbooks of “Fashion Through History” in order to do some serious research on styles of clothing so that I could 1) decide what era clothing I wanted my characters wearing and 2) describe it accurately.
5. In addition to the names of articles of clothing, I have also searched quite a bit for images of traditional clothing styles in the Middle Ages in all sorts of countries – as my newest series has been inspired by quite the conglomeration of cultures from around the world: Germany, Iceland, Persia, Norway, England, the Ukraine, Sweden… to name a few.
6. Various celebrations around the year in various parts of the world.
Fantasy holiday ideas! Sometimes just writing about something that is an actual holiday, but not one most of my readers would be familiar with can add a flare of the fantastical to the story while still retaining a sense of realism.
7. Types of food eaten in the Middle Ages in various different countries and cultures.
8. Idioms from non-English languages.
All the name-searching. This has been especially fun with the Turrim Archive, as I have specific cultures tied to each of the countries that characters are from, and so I have to make sure that each character’s name not only fits him or her, but comes from the correct origin. It has its headache moments, but I think it will be worth the effort.
10. Various cultural methods of sealing a deal other than a “handshake.”
I did end up going with a handshake. But some of the methods are very interesting. My favorite involved giving the person you’re making a deal with your shoe.
11. How far can a horse travel in a day over various terrains. How far can a person on foot travel in a day over various terrains. What is the best method for traveling swiftly over various terrains?
This one seems like it wouldn’t matter… but is often the one I see most nit-picked over by readers on various forums. Not hard details to come by, but important ones.
12. Types of weapons, fighting styles, historical battles, types of armor… all sorts of fighting-related things!
I can’t put all the things I’ve learned here, but it has been extremely useful.
13. The origin of climbing harnesses.
That one was fun…
14. Sea-lingo and sailing terms.
This is one where I have several pages bookmarked on my computer to refer back to. My love of sailing ships and boats in general is far greater than my knowledge of them, but that doesn’t prevent me from trying to learn and be as accurate as I can when describing such vessels or the terms that might be tossed around while my characters are traveling via watercraft.
15. How many shoes could a cobbler make in a day in the 15th-18th centuries?
I never did find the answer to that question. However, I did learn that the term “cobbler” was mostly used to identify a person who mended shoes or created shoes out of old leather. Often cobblers were even legally prevented from making new shoes. Someone who made new shoes out of new leather was referred to as a cordwainer, an archaic term that has fallen out of use… and yet is still generally preferred to the term “cobbler” whenever shoemakers have gathered in any organized sorts of groups.
16. What do two dogs fighting look like?
This was possibly one of the most frustrating search I ever did. And it was another one that never did yield satisfactory results. Typing “dog” and “fight” in any combination on google search just throws you into the world of PETA… which had nothing to do with my question. I wasn’t talking about THAT kind of dog-fight, for crying out loud… I just wanted to know what sorts of sights/sounds/movements two dogs who were fighting might make… nope, nothing. Absolute zero. I eventually went to my trusty Albert Payson Terhune books, because I knew he had several scenes described where dogs fight, and so I read through all of them and got the much-needed insights/inspiration I was looking for there. Silly Google.
Those are just a fraction of all the research topics I’ve covered in the past five years, since my “serious” writing career began. I’m sure there are many more I’m forgetting about, and I’m sure that many more will come up in the future.
If you are a fellow writer, what sorts of things have you researched for your writing endeavors? If you are a reader, what details are you most concerned about an author “getting right” even in fantasy novels? Let me know in the comments!