Research and the Things You Learn

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.

9. Names!

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!

~ jenelle

14 Comments

DJ Edwardson

This post is so interesting and useful!

I’m not one for research myself because, well…time, but it usually does yield wonderful results. I do store images in my Scrivener folder of things I’m writing about and I also look up lots of foreign words for inspiration. I rarely just make up words for places, things, countries, or even names because they “sound good”.

As for dog fights, I just finished reading “Call of the Wild” and there were some amazing dog fighting scenes in there.

Thanks for compiling this!

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jenelle

Yes, Jack London does dog fighting scenes well, also. Unfortunately, I’m not sure where my copies of Call of the Wild and White Fang are at the moment… probably in the storage unit along with the other half of my books…

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Madeline J. Rose

Haha, this is great!! I’m always looking up weird stuff as a writer… :)

The origin of apple pie sounds fascinating, also sealing the deal with things other than a handshake. Sea-lingo and terms is always fun too. :D

I remember you telling me about that dog fighting conundrum! I’m glad in the end you finally found what you were looking for. ;)

This was so fun to read! Thanks for sharing, Jenelle! <3

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jenelle

It is crazy the things we have to become somewhat well-versed in just to write fantasy, isn’t it? Thanks for commenting!

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sarahtps

I enjoyed reading about your weird searches, and I shall have to make a note of this post for future reference. (Like explosions. And pie. I thought pie was modern! Apparently I’m wrong.) Also, I’m glad I’m not the only one who occasionally ends up reading about something other than the answer I’m actually looking for while I’m researching. xD

I think the strangest thing I’ve ever searched was what kind of gun/bullet would be required to kill a dinosaur . . . which had absolutely nothing to do with what I was writing at the time, except that it was one of the search terms that popped up when I was trying to figure out what kind of gun could pierce plate/chain mail armor. And so I decided to see what came up, because, y’know, dragons are like dinosaurs, and I might need to know sometime. Most common search, after names, is probably “Would X weaponry get through Y type of armor?”

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jenelle

I thought pie was modern, as well! Yes, the rabbit trails I can go off on as I research one thing, only to discover another are pretty entertaining.

Ooh, I’m imagining a sort of steampunk/fantasy blend world in which you have guns AND dragons… that sounds interesting. Thanks for stopping by! Fun to hear about what other authors research!

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sarahtps

Oooh. I was thinking if dragons accidentally got through a portal into the modern world, but that steampunk idea is awesome too.

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Abbey

First of all, “cordwainer” is a fabulous word.
Second of all, the strangest thing I’ve had to search (and this was for a sci-fi story and not a fantasy story) is whether or not there is a creature who can breathe in the water and in the air. The closest thing that I could find was a mudskipper, which breathes through its skin. They store oxygen in a gill chamber which allows them to breathe when they are on land (only they have to stay moist for it to work).
I enjoyed reading about all the things you looked up. It was super interesting to learn what kind of things make a forge explode.

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jenelle

Isn’t it? I love learning new words/terms I didn’t know before.

That sounds like a very interesting bit of research!

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E. E. Rawls

I should have guessed apple pie was an old time dessert, but it just seemed too modern!

I’ve researched different plants, and the environment of a fog forest, which was really cool. (I love forests!) And I’m always researching names for characters and things, because names are fascinating. :)

I’ve been researching travel distances too. The basics I found is that a human walks 3 mph on even terrain. I’m not sure about mountainous terrain?
What’s the average a horse and rider can travel on even or rocky ground?

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jenelle

Horses walk at about 4 mph – though they can cover ground faster at faster speeds, but you can’t just gallop a horse all day… so what I found when I was researching this is the following:

An average horse and rider can do approximately 40 miles on a road or even terrain per day. If you’re traveling on rocky/or densely forested areas, then that number drops to somewhere around 15-20 miles per day depending on the roughness of the terrain.

If the horse is pulling a heavy cart or is heavily laden, it’s about half that.

You can add a bit of speed to a horse/rider who are exceptional or specially trained for long distances (rangers, messengers, etc) – about half again the speed (so 60 miles per day over even terrain).

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E. E. Rawls

That’s very helpful, thank you, Jenelle! It’s surprises me that horses walk only a little faster than humans. They’re always portrayed in movies and things as very fast. I guess that’s more of Hollywood’s fiction. :)

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jenelle

Well they can go faster… and make it farther in a day than a person on foot. Walking would just be like going on a leisurely trail ride. If a good rider was pushing a well-trained horse and had stops where they could trade out horses so as not to ruin the horse, they could make very good time crossing large distances. But that isn’t usually taken into account in movies/books.

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E. E. Rawls

Silly me, I worded that wrong: of course a horse can run faster than a human. :) I meant as far as trotting or pulling a wagon over a long distance.
Trading out horses, that is a good way to handle distances in a story. I’ll keep that in mind!

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