Most people hear research and associate it with nonfiction, where it is undeniably crucial. What we don’t always realize is that research can be important in fiction as well–and not just in a genre like historical fiction. Depending on the circumstances, even fantasy can benefit from the judicious use of research.
A Counterexample: What Happens When Writers Don’t Do Their Homework
Whether we’re talking about books, TV, or movies, the connection between the audience and the story can be strained, perhaps even broken, by details that don’t make sense in the real world.
Examples of this kind of problem are numerous, but the one that comes to mind right now is from the MTV series, Teen Wolf. As you might guess from its name, it was predominately YA horror. But since it was supernatural horror, it had a considerable overlap with fantasy.
In most respects, I thought the show was very well done. But the writers seemed to have little sense of how high schools work–a real problem in a show with a high school setting.
A good example of this is the way sports are handled. Most of you will probably remember that high school sports have defined seasons. But apparently they don’t at Beacon Hills High School, where three of the initial main characters and several other significant ones are Lacrosse players. In every season except the last, the Lacrosse season ran all year.
Some of you probably find that criticism a little nitpicky, but for someone like me who had taught high school for many years, it was continually jarring. One would think it would have been for actual high school students as well.
Of course, audience members will react differently to different stimuli. One of my friends, who was a life guard, used to howl over the numerous inaccuracies in Bay Watch. And I used to snarl at the original Beverly Hills 90210 for its weirdly lily-white depiction of a fictional West Beverly High when the real Beverly Hills High School has students representing more than fifty different home languages and is more than 30% Persian. Don’t even get me started on that one! At least the show didn’t maintain the fiction of valet parking for students past the first episode. Other audience members with no experience with lifeguarding or Beverly Hills might not have noticed the issues in either show.
Actually, as I think about it, Teen Wolf was generally more realistic than Bay Watch or Beverly Hills 90210–though that is setting the bar pretty low. Here are a few other examples, that, while they didn’t make me howl or snarl, did get me to bare my fangs a time or two.
Late in the series, the Argents (the family of werewolf hunters whose members are either misguided or downright evil, an interesting twist) get the high school principal to resign, apparently by torturing him–but the principal doesn’t subsequently file charges or anything. OK, I can almost buy the idea that he was intimidated enough not to. But who is the new principal? Gerard Argent, the leader of the werewolf hunters, who apparently at some point had time to get an administrative credential, even though he’s been werewolf hunting his entire adult life. Evidently, he not only took time out from hunting werewolves to get an administrative credential, but he made sure it was valid for a location he’d never been before. He must also have have had a resume impressive enough to get himself hired as a principal the next day. In real life, of course, there would have been a hiring process lasting at least a few days, during which there would be an acting principal, usually one of the assistant principals. In fact, public schools generally have to do business that way in order to not to break laws regarding hiring practices (vacancies must be advertised, people must be given a chance to apply, etc.)
But clearly, Beacon Hills doesn’t have any such legal requirements, since Victoria Argent, Gerard’s daughter-in-law is also hired the next day as the school secretary. (Apparently, her predecessor was just fired with no notice, another legal violation.)
I can understand why the plot would have required a fairly rapid move in these cases, but the hideously unrealistic progression could have been mitigated by having the Argents do more long-term planning, with clues in earlier episodes and a more gradual process for moving the principal out of the way and getting Gerard in.
Schools aren’t the only place where reality gets bent to the breaking point. Take the local hospital, for example. In the beginning, it has something like a normal staff. As the show progresses, Melissa McCall, the mother of Scott (the newly made alpha werewolf who is the main character) increasingly looks as if she’s the only staff member. I guess money to hire extras must have been in very short supply. This becomes apparent in all the episodes (and there are a lot of them) in which she sneaks wounded supernaturals down to the basement to operate on them, generally using the hospital’s main elevator and entering from the main lobby.
The idea that it wouldn’t do for the regular doctors to get their hands on the supernatural patients makes perfect sense. But the way in which that was handled would have made more sense if Melissa had been a doctor (and thus had the expertise to perform the surgeries she does), maybe a doctor at a small clinic where she’s in control. Or if it were desirable to keep the action focused on the hospital, which does make sense in some episodes, Melissa at least needs a better way to sneak in supernaturals.
Then there’s the town’s mental institution, which seems pretty normal at first but eventually turns into a place for illegal experiments and torture, while at the same time holding at least one dangerous supernatural prisoner. In other words, it seems to be whatever the writers need it to be for a particular episode. If there was a credible explanation for these transformations, I missed it.
And lets not forget the gay clubs. I like the inclusive way the show handles sexual preference, but I’m left scratching my head over a small town that has two gay clubs, either one of which appears to have standing room for the town’s entire population. This is despite the fact that only a few of the characters are gay. It’s hard to see how these clubs survive from a strictly financial perspective. I guess we’re supposed to believe that they are heavily attended by straight people and/or out-of-towners. Maybe that could be an explanation, but it’s a stretch.
I’d better stop now so as not to be accused of beating a dead werewolf. Don’t get me wrong. This show is well worth watching. I thought it was imaginative, emotionally moving, and positive without being preachy. But it could have been even better if the non-supernatural elements were handled more realistically.
That’s why writers, even fantasy writers, need to do research–the more realistic the real-life elements are, the less chance there is that the audience will be jolted out of their immersion in the story.
Uses of Research
As I tried to demonstrate in my rant above, verisimilitude, the appearance of being true or real, is important in keeping the reader immersed in the story. If a writer knows about something from personal experience, there’s no need for research. But if a writer doesn’t know how something works in the real world, research is highly desirable.
My first book, and to a lesser extent, the following five, had a high school setting, which was easy for me to handle, since I’d already been teaching high school for years. But there were aspects with which I was less familiar. Sports was the most obvious example. Most of the main characters were athletes, but I’m the most unathletic person on the planet. So I needed to research enough details to keep from making any dramatic mistakes.
For example, for Living with Your Past Selves, I needed to research junior boxing rules as well as CIF wrestling rules. For Divided Against Yourselves, I needed soccer terminology for the scene in which Tal is having a bad day and isn’t playing well. It took more time to do the research than it did to write the scene, but it was worth the effort.
Needless to say, the details of Lucas’s capoeira in We Walk in Darkness and later are also the results of research. I also watched some videos to get a feel for how the moves looked.
Working in a high school also handed me some material without needing to do research. For example, the conversation Carlos has in Divided, in which he talks about why he’s a fast swimmer but a slower runner is based on a conversation I had with a student. The same is actually true of a lot of conversations about everyday things. But when I needed something I didn’t know about, I did my homework.
Other areas I needed to research involved medieval weapons and armor. It was a good thing I looked a few things up, because I discovered I had some misconceptions.
Many of you may have seen those replica swords that usually weigh somewhere between thirty and fifty pounds. Well, they aren’t really replicas, in part because no one would have been able to wield anything that heavy in a real battle. The typical sword was much lighter weight. Similarly, full suits of plate mail were seldom worn in actual battle. The suits of armor we see so often were used in Thirteenth Century jousting, not in battle. (That doesn’t mean that you can’t create lighter armor in a fantasy, but it helps to know you need to mention that it is lighter so readers familiar with medieval armor won’t think you made a mistake. Faerie plate mail in my stories is much later than that made by human smiths.)
For the two novels based on Greek mythology (Fateful Pathways: A Story of Theseus and Harmony and Disharmony: A Story of Orpheus and Jason), I needed to do a lot of research, not only to refresh my memory of the stories but to check details of dress, armor, weaponry and architecture. Even so, I’m sure I missed a detail here and there, but at least I avoided the most obvious errors. For instance, we tend to think about building in stone, I imagine because we have more exposure to medieval castles than we do to ancient Greek structures. But, except for mythical constructions like the walls of Mycenae supposedly built by cyclopes, Greek structures were likely to be clay bricks with a limestone wash over them (and in important structures, maybe a limestone façade, or perhaps even a marble façade somewhat later). The castles we visualize came much later.
I think readers might be inclined to be more forgiving about details of daily life in ancient Greece than they would be about modern details, but if one can find accurate information, it’s better to use it than to ignore it.
Taking Advantage of Ready-Made Details
For urban fantasy or any genre in which some of the settings are real-world places, the internet makes it easy to see images and find details for those real-world settings. Of course, creating a landscape from scratch is probably faster if one has a good imagination. But there is something about incorporating pieces of the real world that I find satisfying. It helps me ensure that I don’t fall into a rut in which a lot of different places sound the same, and it theoretically helps with verisimilitude if someone is familiar with the area. (No reader has ever mentioned that particular feature to me, but then again, I have no way of knowing where my readers are located. Nor do I have any way of gauging the reactions of readers who don’t review or comment to me.)
Three of my major locations are completely fictional. Santa Brigida from the Spell Weaver books is a fictional town near Santa Barbara, California. Le Dragon from the Different Dragon books is a fictional town near Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Madisonville from the Soul Salvager books is a fictional town near Merced, California. Other locations, such as those in other planes of existence, are generally derived from myths or folktales. The first group is constructed from my imagination, the second from earlier sources–we’ll get to that kind of research later.
But for the real locations, I do a little research. My characters stay in real hotels, eat in real restaurants, attend real schools, visit real landmarks, go to real churches, synagogues, mosques or whatever is appropriate.
This is a good spot for a quick note about trademark. Trademark law explicitly allows the use of trademarked names in fictional contexts, but there are a couple of ways you can get yourself in serious trouble if you aren’t careful.
First, trademarked names must be used in a favorable or neutral context. In other words, if you want a casual reference to a character eating in McDonald’s, that’s fine. If you want a character to comment on how great a McDonald’s hamburger is, that’s fine. But if you want a fast food company to be an instrument of Satan, then you must use a fictional one. Doing otherwise could be regarded as trademark tarnishment, and you could end up on the wrong end of an expensive lawsuit.
Second, a company or product with a trademarked name shouldn’t be the focus of your plot. In other words, incidental use is fine. Making a trademarked company the major focus of your story is not fine. Doing something like that could create the false impression that the trademark holder has endorsed your book or give the trademark owner the feeling that you are trying to profit from the trademark. Either of those situations could also result in litigation.
At the risk of digressing too far, using real people’s names can also be an issue. Incidental use of public figures is fine, but use the same principles you would in a trademark situation–the references must be favorable or neutral, and the public figure can’t be a significant character or plot point in the story. Doing otherwise might make you vulnerable to defamation or invasion of privacy claims, perhaps also other legal issues I’m not aware of.
As far as real people who aren’t public figures are concerned, don’t use their names at all or otherwise spotlight them, for example, by using an actual address in the story. That’s just common sense–I hope. A lot of authors feel the same way about small business names, and only use them by obtaining permission first. I’m not sure of the legal implications, but at the very least, it seems polite to do that.
Assuming you are careful to follow those rules, you should be safe in using real places as settings.
If I’m using a real place, I tend to use real details when they are available. For instance, when Chris is trying to talk Steve out of selling his soul in Haunted by the Devil, they’re eating at Applebees in Merced. I mentioned it was on Olive and that it was near UC Merced. I also checked the online menu, and had both of them eating actual menu items, something I often do with restaurants.
Similarly, when Max and DL are eating in the cafeteria of an actual high school, they’re eating something the cafeteria actually serves. And Max’s class schedule is composed of classes actually offered at that school. In addition, descriptions of the the front of the school and the hallway are based on photographs available online.
Of course, if I’ve been to a real place, I may still use online photos to verify my memory, but I’ll also draw on my recollections. This if true, for example, of the Beverly Hills High School scene in Evil within Yourselves. (Fun fact: that scene also features a Hitchcock-like appearance by me–to be precise, a shapeshifter pretending to be me. So far no one, not even people who know me, has ever noticed that. Nor have they registered on the fact that Shar Sassani, one of the main characters in the Spell Weaver series, is a fictional former student of mine.)
Do such realistic touches and intersections with reality actually make a difference to readers? As I’ve said, I don’t really know. I think I was inspired by the example of Peter Jackson’s use of realistic props in the LOTR trilogy. Aside from items that would have been too heavy, like armor, Jackson used craftsmen to create real artifacts rather than props that only looked real. For example, he had a glassblower to create objects like goblets, even if they were only going to be onscreen for a few seconds. Did that make a different in the quality of the movies? It’s hard to say. Perhaps it did do something on a subliminal level. I think that realistic touches in writing could act on a subliminal level even if a reader isn’t that consciously aware of them.
By the way, one excellent tool for geographic and sometimes street-level detail is Google Earth. It helped me pick out undeveloped or farm areas in which to plant Le Dragon and Madisonville. That avoids the need to distort the real geography as I did when I stretched out the California coastline to make room for Santa Brigida. It also gave me an easy way to see how such imaginary communities would mesh with freeways, highways, and other real towns and cities nearby.
To further flesh out real locations, street-level view is great where it’s available. It’s easy to get the general look of an area, the kind of homes or businesses that might be there, whether or not there are trees on the street, and a number of other kinds of details that might be useful for descriptive purposes. This is particularly true if you are using a number of areas and can’t travel to all of them.
I’ve used this method in almost every book since the first for areas where street-level view was available. For interiors, I had to rely on available photos, mostly online but sometimes also from print sources. This is how I found a good location for Max’s apartment in Haunted by the Devil, as well the layout of UC Merced. On a less mundane level, this is how I fleshed out the Venetian scenes in The Inner Worlds Trap and the scenery surrounding the burial mounds near Uppsala in Soul Switch. There are dozens of other times when I used similar methods to flesh out real world areas in an accurate way.
Obviously, it’s possible to adjust real-world locations to fit the needs of the story. For example, I inserted a mysterious bookstore that isn’t actually there on a street in Merced. (It’s really an entry way to a location that travel magically, so it wouldn’t disturb any purists who know the area. Keep the exact location a little more vague if you want to make real physical additions to an area. I don’t know about you, but I always find it unsettling when someone has two real streets intersect when they actually run parallel (a common problem in police procedurals for some reason) or who insert odd geographical features in real places. (N0t to pick too much on both iterations of Beverly Hills 90210, but both have a Beverly Hills beach club. The problem? Beverly Hills has no beach. It isn’t anywhere near one. This is especially strange considering that both shows were filmed in the area, though generally not in Beverly Hills itself.)
Researching for Inspiration
Yes, research can be a source of inspiration by unearthing new ideas for parts of stories or even entire stories.
As you might imagine, myths and folktales provide rich material for fantasy writers, whether urban or epic.
Epic fantasy doesn’t necessarily rely on existing myths, but it often draws inspiration from them. For instance, Tolkien’s Middle Earth owes a lot to Norse mythology. To use a more modern example, Sarah J. Maas’s Court of Thorns and Roses series takes as its starting point the story of Beauty and the Beast. As it progresses, it borrows from a number of traditions. For instance, the Cauldron that plays such a large role is similar to some of the cauldrons in Celtic mythology.
Urban fantasy can also draw inspiration from myth and folklore. Personally, I like to use such sources as inspiration. Arthurian tradition (an uneasy mix of Celtic mythology and early Christianity) provided me with Taliesin Weaver, my original protagonist who is a reincarnation of Taliesin, King Arthur’s bard. The same tradition gave me Ceridwen, an important figure in The Tale of Taliesin who becomes a major antagonist in Living with Your Past Selves. Similarly, Carla Rinaldi’s prior life persona, Alcina, comes from the Renaissance Italian reinterpretation of the Arthurian tradition (specifically that in Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso). Khalid’s prior life persona, Ruggiero, comes from the same source. (And yes, the ancient Celts believed in reincarnation.)
As my writing progressed, I liked to blend different traditions. I started with Arthurian and faerie lore, expanding as I’ve said into Renaissance Italian twists on the Matter of Britain and the Matter of France. Hidden among Yourselves brought in Greek material. Evil within Yourselves brought in a variety of Christian elements, including the Holy Grail. The base kept expanding, producing an eclectic combination.
Just as the individual traditions furnish inspiration, so do the combinations, helping to create different contexts in which to use the old characters. It is by such a process that the Arthurian tradition developed in the first place.
Some people worry that drawing on old traditions limits originality, but that need not be the case. Even retellings of the original myths differ widely from each other. For instance, the classic Mary Renault take on Theseus is far different from mine in Fateful Pathways: A Story of Theseus. Renault is trying to fit the myths into a modern wordview by rationalizing the myths. On the other hand, I’m keeping the supernatural elements but finding ways to make the characters more relatable to modern audiences.
Of course, urban fantasy takes on mythological figures are even more radically different. For example, Queen Mab is a character in my books and in the Jim Butcher Harry Dresden books, but both her role and her personality are as different as night and day. My Mab is a minor but generally positive character, a faerie queen of Connacht whose magic relates to dreams (as in the reference to Queen Mab in Romeo and Juliet) and who is occasionally an ally of Taliesin and his friends. On the other hand, Butcher’s Mab is a much more epic character, the queen of air and darkness, leader of the Winter Court. Her methods are much more brutal than my Mab’s, but she is also more nuanced, a seemingly evil figure who just might be working for the ultimate triumph of good–or not.
Stories that have endured for centuries have endured for a reason. There is something about them that resonates on some deep level of people’s minds. That is why they keep reappearing in literature, both in their own form or in a different guise to fit a different culture. Using them need not kill creativity. Such use just enables imaginative products to benefit from certainly psychologically appealing themes.
(The two photographs of Beverly Hills High School are mine. The featured image is copyrighted by vladgphoto and licensed from www.shutterstock.com.)