Worldbuilding, part 2: By the Power of Grayskull...I mean Research!

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Research is a superpower.


There's an idea out there that serious in-depth research is only something historical writers have to do, that if you write science fiction and fantasy, you can get away with the bare minimum. After all, no one can tell you it's wrong. You made it all up.

The problem with that line of thinking is that wrong and unrealistic are not the same thing. If you can't make the reader believe in your world, it doesn't matter if it's "right."  And research gives you a huge amount of believability for one simple reason:

Research kills stereotypes.

No one knows everything about everything.  And as humans, we fill in the gaps of what we don't know with other things: stuff we've heard, impressions we've gotten, what we've read or seen on TV. The result can be shallow characters and unexciting worldbuilding.

Research can help fix those problems. For example, I didn't seriously start researching ancient India until I'd actually written The House of a Thousand Dolls and realized the two worlds had a lot in common. But once I did, I found a lot of details that made the story much more vivid, like clay lamps, rope sandals and a teak forest rustling with monkeys.

If research is important, HOW one researches is also important. There's a lot of misinformation out there. (I once wrote a whole article about origami based around a 'fact' I found on the internet. That fact turned out to be wrong. Oops. Fortunately I discovered that before I submitted the article.)

Last year I wrote a middle-grade fantasy that I called Black as Ice, White as Bone. Because it was set in a real place (Nome, Alaska) and in a real time (1899), I became VERY obsessive about research. These are the stages I went through.

1.  Reference sections

Home encyclopedias--or the encyclopedias at your local library--are great places to get a broad overview of something. While they are short on details, they can give you the basics on things like historical periods and give you an idea of the kind of information you need to find.

2.  Libraries and University libraries

While the nonfiction section of the public library is usually a great resource, our small town library didn't have the information I needed. So it was off to the university library. They had scolorly studies on both Alaskan history and on the Inuits who lived in that area. Soon I had a MUCH  better idea of the details I was looking for.  I made tons of copies and took a lot of notes.

The important thing here is that you are looking for actual books or papers. You need solid information, published by people with fact-checkers, and deemed reliable enough to be placed in the library.  If you start with that, then you'll have a framework to evaluate the rest of the information you find.

3.  Primary sources

When looking at printed resources, pay careful attention to primary sources, books where people have firsthand knowledge of what they are talking about.

For example, in the university library I found a book called The Eskimo Storyteller: Folktales from Noatak, Alaska. The book was written by Edwin Hall, and is a collection of folktales as told by two Noatak elders: Edna Hunnicutt and Paul Monroe.  The stories were told directly to Hall, who not only wrote them down, but also made notes on Inuit living patterns and different themes within the stories.

This book had a profound impact on the writing of Black as Ice, White as Bone. It not only gave me details about how my characters might have lived, it got me into the mind of the culture I was writing about and helped me understand what they valued.

4.  Fiction

Sometimes you can get a better handle on a culture, time period or religion by reading other fiction that deals with similar subjects. I read a lot of fiction set in India when I was rewriting Houses, not so I could copy details, but so I could catch the flavor of the setting and see how other people made it come alive. I did the same for Black as Ice, White as Bone. (Though finding good fiction about the coastal Northwest Inuits was a bit of a challenge.)

5.  Google

Ahhh, the internet. The greatest information distributer man has ever known. And it is a wonderful research tool, but ONLY after you've laid the proper groundwork. Once you have a solid foundation of primary and reliable secondary sources, the internet is your best friend, for several reasons.
a. Wikipedia

I love Wikipedia because it's so random. There's always some little bit of information in an article that I hadn't picked up on before.  Sometimes the information holds up under research, sometimes it doesn't, but I almost always get a new idea out of it.

b. Pictures. 

One thing I did before I rewrote Black as Ice, White as Bone was google and save a whole mess of pictures. Pictures of historic Nome, pictures of tools and houses and hunting equipment. And lots of pictures of people. Then every time I found a vague passage of description, I just pulled up a picture and used it as a reference.

(I highly recommend browsing the U.S. Geological Survey Photographic Library. I found some amazing old photos there.)

c. Widening your net

There are details and ideas on the Internet you might not find in other places. The trick is already knowing your subject well so that you can spot misinformation. And there are primary sources on the Internet too. In my case, I visited several Inuit culture sites and picked up interesting details, like how to use a marrow pick and what kind of feathers were used to fletch an arrow.

A lot of people hate research, and in a different post I'll give you some tips to make it less onerous. But if you're writing speculative fiction (or any fiction) and you can't seem to get away from stereotypes, I strongly encourage you to try a little research. You might be amazed at what you find.

How do you stand on research for worldbuilding? Do you love it? Hate it? Do YOU think it's necessary?

Please discuss!

(Also sorry for the Sunday post all. The posting schedule has to flex a bit until my Saturdays slow down. But it will stay on Wednesdays and weekends)

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Fabric art in the header by Carol Riggs.