Fantastical research

Important blog note: If you go back to earlier postings – as I hope you do – please don’t post your comments or questions there.  I don’t check and may never see what you wrote.  Even if what you have to say concerns an old post, please add your comments to the most current one, where I’ll be sure to read it and so will the other writers who frequent the blog.

On March 17, 2010 April wrote, It sounds like you rely primarily on books for research, with online searching as a supplement or back up. Is this just your preference? Or do you think the kind of information you’re looking for is more trustworthy in a book? Or perhaps another reason?

And Priyanka wrote, April- my answer to you for that is that material you find in a cloth-bound book, which took a lot of time to edit and compile, is most probably more reliable than the majority of websites on the web, which probably got their own information from a book! (Take a look at the bibliography sections on well-written Wikipedia articles, they often have an extensive list of books.)

There are some exceptions for research online! I would trust anything I find in JSTOR or an online database such as EBSCO. I’m not sure how easily accessible those are for everyone, but high schools and universities usually have subscriptions to them, as do some public libraries. All it requires is a little searching! 🙂
I’m not an expert on research, so please keep my non-expertise in mind as you read.  I also don’t have access to university databases or live near a big public library, so I’ve never used the online databases Priyanka cites.  I do google the topics that interest me, and I use Wikipedia a lot, but the online sources that I find mostly give overviews.  When I want more depth, I read books.

As you guys probably know, most of my novels are fantasies.  Ever, for example, is set in a made-up version of ancient Mesopotamia.  To help me write it, I read two books about the period and visited the ancient Mesopotamian collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.  I also read Mesopotamian myths and reread the Greek myths.  I read the bible as well, which, among other things, contains information about ancient daily life.

But my purpose wasn’t accuracy, it was flavor and detail.  I didn’t mention Mesopotamia in the novel; the city of Hyte and the kingdom of Akka, where the action takes place, never existed.  If I used a detail from an online source that was wrong, it didn’t matter.

It helps me to have specific information when I write, even if the information is riddled with inaccuracies.  Reading that the houses of the period were made of baked mud helped me picture them (I’m pretty sure this detail is true).  I read about the layout of rooms, and that helped too.  If I’d discovered that these layouts were inaccurate, I would have tried to find out what was correct, but then if the correction didn’t suit my story needs, I would have gone back to what I knew to be wrong.  I make no claims of historical verity, and I hope no teacher has made Ever part of a curriculum of the ancient world.

An aside:  I found an online dictionary of ancient Sumerian and used it to invent names, places, and a few words.  But I worried that I might have accidentally created words that exist in modern Arabic or Farsi, and I couldn’t tell if the words happened to be offensive.  My publisher found a speaker of both languages to look at my inventions.  Turned out that a couple were real words, but nothing bad.

Another aside:  I discovered, online again, numbers as they would have been written in cuneiform.  So, above the ordinary Arabic numerals at the beginning of each chapter are the same numbers in cuneiform.  If you look, you can learn to write cuneiform numbers up to sixty-nine (the number of chapters in the book)!  I love that.

My fairy tale books from Ella Enchanted through Fairest are not set in any time period more specific than pre-industrial.  I did little research.  I looked at costume books, especially for Fairest, but I roamed from century to century to find gowns that fit what I wanted.  (Some of the fashions were completely ridiculous, which suited my story.  For a hoot, take a look at an illustrated fashion history book.)  For Cinderellis and the Glass Hill, I researched armor, but not extensively.

I have gotten letters from children, thanking me for teaching them about the middle ages through my books.  When I read these letters, I shudder and feel guilty.  So for A Tale of Two Castles, which April named on the blog, I did read two books about medieval daily life, and I referred constantly to a children’s book, Castle by David Macaulay, about castle architecture.  If kids write to me about the middle ages in that book I’ll feel a little better, although I still made things up.

Children’s nonfiction is a great source for gaining nontechnical understanding of a complex subject.  In For Biddle’s Sake a fairy turns characters into frogs, and I read two children’s books about frogs.  They told me everything I needed.

It’s important to note that although I’m writing from a European fairytale tradition, there is no Europe in my books.  My fairytale novels take place nowhere on planet earth.  Even though I researched frogs, if I’d wanted to give them wings or make each of them as big as tyrannosaurus rex, I could have.  If you do set your story in a real time and place, then I think you need to be accurate.  For example, suppose your fantasy takes place in sixteenth century France, even if you have dragons dotting the landscape, you need to be true in other respects to the place and time.

When I wrote my non-fantasy, realistic historical novel, Dave at Night, which takes place in New York City in 1926, I did extensive research and tried to get everything right.  I read several books about the period as well as poetry and a novel written at the time.  I spent days going through the photo collection at the main branch of the New York Public Library, looked at street plans of the time, visited the Tenement House Museum and spoke to the curator, visited the New York City Transit Museum and talked to an expert on mass transit during the era.  And much more.  Best of all, I had two friends with excellent memories who were alive at the time.  If you’re writing about a period that’s within living memory of your parents or grandparents or of people you can contact, talk to them.  They will give you details and a flavor of the time that you can’t get any other way.  But then fact-check their information.  When I was little, for example, I remember telephones being only black.  I would guess that they began to be produced in colors in the mid to late 1960s, but the change may have begun earlier.  Dates in memory are often slippery.

These prompts involve research.  If you want to surround them with a story, so much the better.

•    Some emergency has arisen during the night.  Your seventeenth or eighteenth-century daughter of a duke has to dress in a hurry.  Write about her getting dressed with as much historical accuracy about her clothing as you can find.  Remember, she is rushing.

•    Describe five minutes of a medieval feast with as much historical accuracy as you can.

•    A young squire (or female equivalent) is polishing his lord’s armor and decides to try everything on.  Once he’s outfitted, he mounts his lord’s charger, just as someone unexpected (you pick) enters the stable.  Write the whole scene, including what happens next.
Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. How clever to read non-fiction books for kids as part of your research! They'd be just enough to know what's accurate without a bunch of unnecessary details, and all written in layman's terms. Huh.

    I'll have to remember that for the future. Thank you!

    (Also, this is completely irrelevant, but it pleases me that you answered one of my questions today, since it's my 3rd wedding anniversary today. Thanks for the "gift"!) 🙂

  2. Hi!
    I'm actually in the middle of writing a story that takes place in Medieval Germany, and I almost gave up awhile ago because I was sick of all the research I was doing.
    This post was helpful.
    Something I think is funny is that all 3 prompt you had are all scenes in my book!

  3. Cool! Thanks for the help; most of my stories are set in either an alternate present, world and/or past, so this is really helpful. 🙂

    I think that when something says "fiction", it shouldn't be counted on to give real information about everything, except that that may be mentioned in an Author's Note. An example of this are Rick Riordan's books "Percy Jackson and the Olympians" and "The Kane Chronicles". He researched the Greek/Egyptian Gods and their myths, but then still put a creative twist on a lot of it to make it original to the world today. Thanks to his author's notes—and sometimes narration from certain characters—we know what was really in the myths and what was added.

  4. Ms. Levine,
    thanks for this post! It was very helpful. I write about medieval fantasy, and i recently went to a Renaissance Fair, i spent the whole day looking at different clothing and listing to the way people talked and the way things were set up to mimic the time period, though i'll have to do some more research; all the details there set my mind a light. Thanks so much!

  5. Thank you for this post – it answered my nagging doubts about research as well.
    I always assumed most of the things I read in books – about a certain machine, or a process – are true, unless it's obvious they can't be. Do you think books have a duty to be correct in the facts they present?

  6. Ms. Levine – one of my biggest problems with writing is when I have a story that simply isn't finished. It's not that I don't know what will happen, but that I can't translate my vague outline into actual scenes. Am I the only one with this problem? Does it mean the story just isn't interesting enough? Do you have any suggestions, or do any of the other bloggers? Thanks!

  7. This sounds almost exactly like the type of research that I do for my fantasy books. I hope that means that I'm on the right track. 🙂

    One other tip – I have found that used bookstores are a great place to add to my research library since highly illustrated books can be quite pricey.

    April – Happy Anniversary!

  8. Happy anniversary, April!!!
    F–Interesting question. How fictitious can fiction be? I'm adding it to my list.
    Rose–I'm adding your question to my list too. I'll take a stab at it.

  9. Rose – Is the vague outline in your head or do you have it written down? Writing it down might help.

    When I read your question, I thought I remembered a previous post on this blog that might help you until Ms. Levine can get around to answering your question specifically. Turns out there are a couple.

    Ms. Levine – I noticed that you've put in tags. 🙂 (Although I don't think these are tagged yet.) I'm so glad you did! Your blog is such a great writing resource -it's a big help to be able to search it.

  10. MS. Levine
    I need help with a book that im writing. My book is based off of Fairest (an amazing book, by the way) and i have a writers block. i need you to look at it and/or, if it ever gets published, give me permistion to use your copywrited ideas.
    thanks a bunch-Bethany

  11. Erin Edwards–I think the tags were your idea, so thanks! And there's also the keyword search at the top of the blog.
    Bethany–I'm delighted that FAIREST inspired you! But, again, I'm sorry. I don't have time to look at your book, and I can't give you permission at this point to use mine, and it's possible that I never will. The decision would have to be made with my agent, and it would be a complicated one. If you want to write (for publication) from an existing work (many writers do), choose one that was published at least a hundred years ago and is no longer copy protected. FAIREST is fine if you use it for practice only and not for publication. As for writers block, I posted on the subject on October 28, 2009, and I devoted a chapter to it in WRITING MAGIC.

  12. Great post as always! In reference to my question on meaning: Thanks! This project has been the last year and will be the next year of my academic life, so even after it's done, I will still care about it, and I will always be interested in what motivates people to speak, write, draw, sing, etc.

    Side note about matching names to correct cultures: has a wonderful page called "Baby Names Around the World" that lists names by culture and shows the meaning and origin of the names you click on!

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