I’m announcing, proudly, that I’ve had a poem published in each of these two anthologies: On the Dark Path, An Anthology of Fairy Tale Poetry, and the cancer poetry project 2. The first is probably appropriate for high school and above. My poem, called “Becoming Cinderella,” presents an entirely different version of the story from Ella Enchanted. I love that the fairy tale can accommodate both interpretations. The cancer anthology is also for high school and above, but I think it will be most meaningful if you at least know someone who’s struggled with cancer. My poem, “Because,” is in the “friend” category – I don’t have cancer.

Now for the post. On February 13, 2013, Athira Abraham wrote, I had a question that involved voice. My story might be from the middle ages or 1800s or something like that, but I also wanted to include things that were modern, like a camera, a café (yes, a café, not a bakery) and also events like Valentine’s Day, but I’m not sure how I would express it in the story to myself and the readers. I’m also finding it hard to include religion, like a church, if my story is a fantasy and includes a witch, or a sorceress, because some religions can be against this. How could I express these things in a story without making it sound too complicated?

Several subjects are wrapped up in here. First, time period. The middle ages and the 1800s are vastly different, politically, technologically, culturally, even religiously, and probably more. If we really want to give an impression of a particular period, it’s worth doing a little reading. There are books about the daily life of just about every period. I have two on the middle ages and one on ancient Mesopotamia. I usually read the chapters that have bearing on my story. For example, I’m always interested in food and the home. If we’re writing fantasy, we don’t have to stick slavishly to the information, but it’s helpful to have a general idea. In addition to daily life, it may be useful to google geopolitics for the period just to get a sense of what was going on.
And our research pays off delightfully in the details that we come across that inform and enrich our story, details we never would have thought of on our own.

It is possible to write a story that pulls in bits and pieces from all over the time line. Terry Pratchett is a master of this in his Discworld series. If we’re going to do something like that, we need to establish it very early in our story, certainly in the first chapter, so our readers don’t get confused.

If we’re not going to hop all over the historical map, let’s back up to consider why we pick a particular period. The answer doesn’t have to be deep, but, in my opinion, we should have one. Maybe we want a medieval story because we want the action to take place in a castle, and we don’t want to write twenty-first century people who are renovating a twelfth century castle. That’s good enough for me.

Generally, we need a reason for everything! Let’s take the three Athira Abraham mentions: a camera, a café, and Valentine’s day. It’s not good enough, in my opinion again, merely to like these elements. They need to fit into our plot. We can like one of them, say Valentine’s Day and what happens on that day, and decide to build a book around it. That’s fine. But then we need a reason for the café and the camera. Maybe our lovebirds meet at a café and ask a stranger to take a photo of them, and the photo falls into the wrong hands, because one of our MCs has been hiding from her great enemy, the powerful and vicious Earl of Eagleton. Cool!

These three elements may suggest our time period. As I wrote in my comment to Athira Abraham when she posted on the blog, the camera (not the digital camera, not a phone camera) has a pretty long history, and its forerunners go back even further. But in the old days you couldn’t just point and shoot. Taking a photo took time. Look it up.

Valentine’s Day goes way, way back, I discovered in my quick peek into Wikipedia, but the traditions evolved. Look it up, too.

Often etymology (word origin) will give you a sense of when something came into existence. According to Dictionary.com, the word café came into English at the end of the eighteenth century, so there probably weren’t cafes before then. If you’re alarmed about how long research will take, this filled about twenty seconds.

Suppose we decide to set our story in the middle ages. Valentine’s Day, in whatever form it took then, works. Cameras and cafes don’t. What to do?

We need some sort of substitute. Maybe for the camera it will be an artist who excels in recording impressions in charcoal on parchment. Or maybe, since this is fantasy, it’s a certain kind of owl that fixes images in its eyes. If you feed it a mouse and say the magic words, the moment you wanted to preserve will appear in the owl’s eyes. For a café, we’ll need to dream up something else, a gathering place of some sort.

Onto religion. We can have witches and sorceresses without mentioning religion – my opinion again. But if we need religion, this is fantasy, and it can be a fantasy religion. We can invent gods, demons, witches, sorcerers, sorceresses, cherubs, half-gods, creatures that are lower than humans in the creation hierarchy, whatever we like, whatever serves our story. The more different our fantasy religion is from actual religions, the less likely we’re to offend anyone. If our main god is in the shape of a dishwasher or, since this may be a medieval fantasy, a pot of porridge or even a unicorn, it’s unlikely to be connected by readers to their beliefs.

But, and I’ve written about this on the blog before, we may offend someone or more than one, and the anger may be for something we entirely did not predict. It may have nothing to do with religion (or it may – the religious aspects of Ever have bothered some readers). Maybe it has to do with the knights’ code of chivalry, which we expected would please everybody. The point is, if we worry about offending people, we may as well stop writing – and speaking, and leaving our bedrooms!

Here are four prompts:

• Put Valentine’s Day, the café, and the camera into a story set 200 years in the future. Each one has changed. Invent what they’ve become and decide how they fit into your tale.

• Research an aspect of life in the middle ages, could be market life, or costume, or cooking. Put your MC in the middle of it and give her an objective and obstacles to fulfilling it. Write the scene.

• Make her a modern girl in this medieval situation. Write the scene again, including her mistakes and her bungling good luck. A book I adore along these lines is Mark Twain’s Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court – funny and exciting.

• In the middle of an escape from the villain, both your MC Mallory and your villain Hamilton wander into a religious ceremony unlike any either of them have known before. Mallory’s goal is survival; Hamilton’s is destruction. But nothing in this religion is as it seems. There are hallucinations, mazes, smoke, weather events, disembodied voices, and whatever other mayhem you want to toss in. Write the scene. If you like, continue and write the story or the novel.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I think Mrs. Levine did a really good job at showing how things could work. As for witches and sorcerers along with religion, well, look at the real world. I am a Christian, which means I believe in the holy trinity and also in a devil and hell. There ARE such things as witches. And they ARE evil and posses odd powers, granted them by Satan. So, I don't think you really have problem there. As for cameras, well, I think Mrs. Levine was right. No cameras. Maybe instead you can have a REALLY talented artist or something that is friends with your MC or similar. I know a few people (Not personally) who can draw exceedingly lifelike pictures in a few hours, or sketch them (Without quite so much detail) within minutes. Cafes should probably turn into some sort of tavern or some such thing. Although…it is your story. Though, we were listening to The King of Attolia on CD and my mom didn't like the fact that there were guns and such. She said it made the story less enjoyable because it made it sound false. But you do what you decide. I hope it turns out really well.

    • I feel so happy to have a blog written/typed for a question I asked, just like writeforfun feels!!!!

      Thanks sooooo much, Gail. You cleared everything up for me. I hope that bloggers that had this problem found the solution here on this post.

      I totally agree with the fantasy religion and the talented artist. For the cafe, I can turn it into a tavern, like Elsabet suggested.
      I guess where I got this question from is SHREK because the movie has severl modern aspects to it without being confusing, and I was worried that it could look a little out of place on page, but not anymore!

      Thank You so much for the post!!!!!!!

  2. I feel a little uncomfortable about writing fake religions, since I am a fairly religious person. I usually just don't include them in my writing.

    I definitely agree with the research thing, even though researching is my LEAST favorite thing to do. I don't mind learning the stuff, but there is a lot of misleading things on the internet that you have to puzzle through, and then some books on the subject look really good, until you find out that it's a Kindergartener's Guide or something. That's part of the reason I write mostly fantasy, cuz I won't have to do so much RESEARCH. Sigh. I should probably start, though. (Researching, I mean.)
    Can't wait to try out the prompts, even though they involve research!:)

    • So don't call it research. I love learning about new things, especially when they help me with my writing. I've developed an "I wonder…?" attitude. If I'm wondering about something, I don't just wonder–I go look it up. And looking it up can be lots of fun, too, especially if it has to do with whatever you're writing. And don't think that writing fantasy will get you out of doing "research." I've been writing a fantasy novel, and I've done research on sword-smithing, healing herbs, the geography of waterfalls, and medical conditions, just to name a few. My suggestion is to quit thinking of it as "research" and start thinking of it as "learning." I, too, dislike research (especially research papers), but I love learning new things. Hope that helps. 🙂

  3. Congratulations on the poems, Mrs. Levine!
    Like Bug, I'm uncomfortable with religion in fantasy and don't include it in my writing. It often seems to me to be treated disrespectfully, like the greedy, pompous priests in Robin McKinley's SPINDLE'S END. I'm loving the book so far, but I hate that element. Granted, they are priests of "gods" rather than of the one true God, but I think if McKinley would treat this religion with scorn she would treat Christianity no differently.
    Also like Bug, I prefer fantasy with as little reasearch as possible! 😀 Alas, I cannot always avoid it.
    I want to read A CONNECTICUT YANKEE IN KING ARTHUR'S COURT! It sounds fun! 🙂

    • Actually, Robin McKinley takes her Christianity very seriously. She's posted about it on her blog.

      Connecticut Yankee IS fun.

      I must be weird. I can get sucked into research for hours.

    • Huh. That surprises me. I'm glad to hear it, though! I'll have to take a look at her blog; I didn't know she had one.
      @Michelle Dyck–I love some of the symbolism in THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA! The part where Aslan helps Eustace take off the dragon skin because it is impossible for Eustace to do it alone (just as it is impossible for us to be cleansed from our sins without Jesus) seems so powerful to me.

    • I'd like to point out that while I feel uncomfortable writing religion in my fantasy, I don't think it's bad necessarily. I've read Percy Jackson, and enjoyed them, so if my comment made anyone feel bad, it wasn't meant too. Kay? Okay. Just to make sure everyone realizes this.

    • I've also read Percy Jackson and every other book Rick Riordan has wrote which is all on mytholigical gods. But I don't mind those because at the beginning of each of the series, the main character is told in some way that these gods are not to be worshipped or thought of as GOD.

      This is what Carter in the KANE CHRONICLES is told: "In the ancient times, Egyptians learned that their gods were not to be worshipped. They are powerful beings, primeval forces, but they are not divine in the sense one might think of God. They are created entities, like mortals, only much more powerful. We can respect them, fear them, use their power, or even fight them to keep them under control…."

      That was a little long. But that's what it says. Would people mind reading a book like that, but if it comes with an explanation like above?

    • I'm reading the Kane Chronicles right now and I don't even remember the above passage. It's funny what you do and don't notice sometimes! But maybe *because* of that passage is the very reason I wasn't concerned about any of this as I was reading.

    • @Bug: I know, right? I loved that part too! The movie didn't portray it quite like the book, but both versions were good.
      @Athira Abraham: Yeah, I'd be fine with reading something like that, where the mythological gods are more like powerful humans than divine entities.

  4. Gail- Congratulations! That must feel good =P
    Could you maybe give a link to the poems or the books that they're in? I'm no good with searches. Thanks!

  5. Great advice as always, but I especially loved the books you used as examples. Seriously, The Color of Magic and Connecticut Yankee are two of my favorite books in the world! I totally understood your explanations as soon as you mentioned them.

    Yet another reason to read the blog – you have great taste in books!

  6. Great post, as always! 🙂

    I agree with Bug and Jennaral Lee in that I don't prefer 'fake religions' in books. I do enjoy reading books that have allegorical-type religions, with one figure representing God (think Aslan). Seeing as I'm a Christian, anything else usually goes against what I believe in.

    Like Mrs. Levine said, witches and sorcerors can be in a story without it having anything to do with a religion, real or otherwise. Personally, I don't like such as anyone but a villain. Then they can have all the evil powers they want. 😛

    Oh, by the way — Mrs. Levine, your prompt about a modern girl in a medieval world totally reminded me of a book I just finished reading. (Torrent, book 3 in a trilogy by Lisa T. Bergren.) The first book in the series presented some humorous circumstances for the MC, since she arrived in medieval Italy, wearing skinny jeans and a tank top. Not exactly proper attire for medieval women. Besides that, she turns out to be an excellent warrior, which never fails to astound the people.

    Anyway, enough rabbit trails. 🙂 That's my two cents on the topics being discussed.

    • Yes, it definitely was! The author did a wonderful job with the romance side of the story too. Not cheesy or dramatic in a 'groan and roll your eyes' kind of way.
      (In case anyone here was wanting to read the series, I'd reccommend it for high school and up.)

  7. Great tips on doing research Ms. Levine. I tried to write my fantasy without doing any research but I found it didn't come alive enough for me. Research added depth – and gave me some great new ideas for scenes and other tidbits, like you said.

  8. I also agree with Mrs. Levine on the account of research even with fantasy. I am writing in a sort of medieval setting. It's a little more modern than the medieval ages, incorporating cannons and a few types of guns, but also some of the older types of weaponry, as well as medieval style clothing (More or less.) To make up the customs of my countries I studied the customs of the medieval times, as well as those of several other time periods. I believe it adds a little authenticity to my stories. Though, of course, you don't NEED to, it's your story, but I think a well researched tale is more enjoyable.

  9. On the subject of fake religions in fantasy stories, I actually don't mind them, but perhaps that's because I love learning about different cultures and their religions. And let me point out that I am a devout Christian. I don't mind it, though, because I feel that they are just good stories, just like stories of Hercules and Zeus and stuff. I can read them without having to believe them. The only times I completely disregard a book for religious reasons are if they are overly preachy (even if I agree with them), or if they are utterly blasphemous (like the TV show I started watching where the MC is Satan's son, which completely goes against everything I believe in). Anyways, that's just my two cents on the topic.

  10. I agree. I don't mind reading about fictional religions (or various real-world ones), and I love writing them. I figure they're imaginary, it's not like I'm asking anyone to actually follow them, and it's a great way to explore big questions of Good, Evil, morality, etc. Besides, most real-world cultures have religions, so why wouldn't fictional ones?

  11. How do you write a series? I'm worried about it not running smoothly. I can't really change stuff in the first book, and I would outline, but I never stick to my outline. (Why is this writer stuff all so complicated? Good thing it's fun, or else I'd be writing essays for the rest of my days…)Anyone have input on this?

    • I'm in the middle of writing a four-book series. Since I'm not finished, I can't offer the kind of advice that comes from looking back on a completed project, but here goes…
      Just like a single book has a story arc, so do most series. Book one may deal with an MC fighting to drive an enemy from her homeland, book two may be about the MC running away from the now vengeful baddies, and book three could detail her final stand against a whole league of those villains. Each book will focus on a specific portion of this adventure, but the whole trilogy will be about this girl's struggle against the villains. (This may be oversimplified, but I hope you know what I mean.)
      Some series' books may not be so obviously connected, but I'd say that as long as there is one driving factor running the length of the series (be it a complicated relationship with a friend or family member, an MC's desire to prove herself, or a fight against bad guys) you're doing well.

  12. I wrote a funeral scene with a Bible-carrying bishop in my fantasy story. It's not offensive, but I wondered where the Bible would come from since my world doesn't include Jerusalem. I think I'll remove it and make him a priest since those are more universal.
    It's helpful to avoid specific names of inventions. My heroine lives in a 1800's-ish world and uses a pistol. In my mind it's a derringer, but those were named after a Henry Derringer. So I just call it a flintlock.

    • Yes, there are so many things that are named after people in our word, and it's so easy to put them in an imaginary world without thinking that the characters would probably call them something else. Leotard, guillotine, pasteurize…

    • I have the same problem!!!! In one of my fantasies, there is a Saint Bernard and a few other types of dogs, but dogs are often named after people or countries. The way I solved the problem was, if the dogs were named after a person (Or Saint) then I kept the name, reasoning that, there could be an old long forgotten saint in my world or some such. As for if they are named after countries, well, in my worlds, I normally half-pattern them after the real one, so I have most of my countries sort-of reflecting real ones, say Lica-England, Corin-Spain, Kalodia-Scotland Russav-Russia Saieland-Norway and so on. I don't think using the names or religions from this world are bad. Good exsamples of great books that incorporate such real-world things are Entwined, by Heather Dixon (In her book, she has Latin, and her horses are named after classical English writes.) Princess of the Midnight Ball, by Jessica Day George (She did a really good job with Christianity in fantasy) and there are numerous others that I won't mention now. I think it would be aokay to make your gun a Derringer, in your world, the man who invented it could also have been named Derringer, and it wont confuse your readers. As for the bible, I recommend you read the book by Mrs. Day. It might help with your whole Bible/Bishop thing, because both are in the book and take key roles (Though, her characters, for the most part, aren't too religious.) Hope this helps.

    • I love Jessica Day George! Now that I think of it, we're writing in English instead of Regintan or Imrian or whatever, so why not use some English words? I never knew Dalmatia was a place until I googled the dogs. Most readers don't know who Leotard and Derringer were.
      Research should help the story, not hinder it. For example, I learned early 1800s women favored singleshots because they were easy to hide in handbags. This helped me explain why my heroine only kills one enemy in one scene.

    • This may seem random, but as for me making up names, I look in the dictionary, find some obscure, cool-sounding word, and then change the spelling and pronounce it how I think it would be cool. Like the word 'trogon' became my evil empire's name-Troggen. It works for me.

  13. From the website:

    Hey it's me, Miss I-can't-comment-on-blog-girl……read your post titled When? and was reading all the comments on how some people just hate researching, and how it's sometimes hard to find sites that are reliable. Recently, on another blog I read (Magical Words) a post was posted (go figure) on researching, and the author's website was included where she has SEVERAL links to helpful researching sites. Haven't looked at all of them, so I don't know about age-levelness, but what I've seen is helpful. If you find it useful too, would you mind posting the link for me so that other blog-readers of your's can see/use it? If not, I totally understand 😉 here's the site: http://www.dianapfrancis.com/resource-links/
    Anna Marie

  14. This post was really interesting, as well as a reminder that I must actally research my fiction. I do pretty well on the nonfiction stuff but the term "fiction' always tricks me into thinking I don't need to do it.

    I'm having a problem with my book in that though I'm in love with my plot and can see exactly where I want it to go, I can't actually… write it. I feel like I'm skimming over everything interesting, like description and giving my characters, well, character, in order to write down the plot. I keep telling myself that it'll get better once I'm through the first draft but my writing is so bland and boring right now I can't stand it. I feel like I want to give up but I still love the plot, just not the writing. Is it just first draft blues? Or do I really need to start over? If you could help that would be wonderful. Thank you!

  15. Thanks for the post!

    It's been really interesting, because my book is set in the real world in lots of different places that I have never been (and I will probably never go!), so I have done a TON of research! Since it involves a global spy mission, I had to research all sorts of different cultures, locations, and buildings. Come to think of it, though, even my first book, which took place in modern Chicago, took some research. Different kinds of research, but research just the same. I studied lots of pictures of it, and I looked at real estate websites to get an idea of what the different characters’ apartments looked like. I think pictures help a lot, because if I can see the room or place I’m describing, I do a much better job than I would if I were just imagining it. Mostly because real life is much more interesting than anything I could think up – like one time I was trying to imagine what a market place in Myanmar would look like, and in the picture I found, along with grass huts, there was a big, bright, beach umbrella. Who would have thought!

    As for religion in books, I think it can go a few different ways. I've read books in which the author has a specific religion that she believes in and she portrays it clearly and exactly. I've also read books in which the authors created their own religions. And then I've read books in which the authors included a preexisting religions which they did not believe in personally and didn't fully understand. My favorite is the first kind, because even when the author is a different denomination than I am, I appreciate the fact that she knows what she is talking about and believes it. The made up religions are fine, too (although I do occasionally get distracted if they’re too similar to real religions, because, though I'm a Baptist – in more general terms, a Christian – I know a lot about other religions and denominations, so I start comparing, thinking "wait, so they're like Catholics who are also Hindu and pantheist…?) My least favorite way of handling it, though, is when the author writes a lot about a certain religion which she does not believe and has not researched very well. It really shows.

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