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How I Write…Research, research , research!

Posted by on June 30, 2010

Research for fantasy? Well, yes! There are many things in fantasy writing that are based in reality. When I was writing, To Find A Wonder , I had to learn how boys in the Middle Ages were brought up from being a page to a squire and finally knighted. I needed to know what their jobs were at each of these stages, what the typical uniform was, different types of weapons, and what kind of horses were used for travel and war–yes, they used different horses for different things! There was a lot to learn,and even though it didn’t all go into the book, Mortimer was more rounded character because I understood his history.

Research is also good in fantasy writing to know what kind of creatures are already out there. Say, for instance , that I want one of my characters to be a goblin. I open The Element Encyclopedia of Magical Creatures, by John and Caitlin Matthews,  and read what it has to say. Here are the key ingredients for a goblin:

-Generally a name for an evil or malicious spirit

-Usually small and grotesque

-May have emerged from beneath a rock in the Spanish Pyrenees

-Sometimes referred to as a group of fairies that live in churchyards, crevices in rocks or among roots of ancient trees

-In European folklore they are usually knee-high with grey hair and beards

-The best way to get rid of them is to scatter flax seed all over the floor–when the goblin appears at night to do mischief, he will feel obliged to pick all the seed up and won’t finish the task by dawn. After several attempts he’ll give up and go away.

So, we have a personality (malicious & mischievous), a physical description (knee high, gray hair, grotesque, beard), a place to put them (churchyard, rock crevices, etc.), and a way for our hero to get rid of them (flax seed). All of this information is based on centuries old folklore and many people are familiar with these traits. Now you can create a believable Goblin…


…You can totally turn this stereotype on it’s head! Make your goblin blue and weak, with the capacity to realize that something is pretty or smells good. Make the Goblin your hero! I love the Goblin Hero series by Jim C. Hines! Make your goblin all goodness and light and fighting to be different than all those “other” goblins.  Now that you have some information to go on, you can make up your own character with a  mixture of traditional and new characteristics.

Let’s take it a step further though. Read anything you can get your hands on that is about goblins– books, encyclopedia articles, folklore and legends. You can find a lot of free-to-read legends and traditional tales from many countries right here on the internet. It’s always a good place to start. And how do you know you’ve done enough research? When you are struck by an idea that will not leave you and the character you were building on paper, begins to talk to you in your dreams.

How do you research for your fantasy writing? If you missed it, I did an interview of Kat Black, author of Tormod, A Templar’s Apprentice on Monday. She talks about researching 14th century Scotland! Click on her name above to read the post.

Below is the current list of contributing writers to the HOW I WRITE blog series.

Click a link and find out HOW I WRITE! (in alphabetical order, check us all out!)

Kendall Ashby Corbit- Rated R

Kristine Asselin – Rated PG

Tatiana Caldwell – Rated R

Isabelle Flynn – Rated PG

Ansha Kotyk – Rated PG

Laura Pauling – Rated PG

Alexia Reed – Rated R

Gail Roarke – Rated NC-17

P.M. Rousseau – Rated R

14 Responses to How I Write…Research, research , research!

  1. Laura Pauling

    Ooh! Makes me want to write about goblins! 🙂

  2. Ansha Kotyk

    I love researching through myth and legend. They’re the best places to start for plot ideas and characters! Great post I loved your goblin example, I never knew this much about goblins!

  3. kris

    I love how so much fantasy is based on myth and legend — it almost feels real. All the more reason to research! Thanks, Jen! And I, too, have a sudden urge to write about a goblin!

  4. Kay

    Not only have I learned about tin/aluminum foil, now I also know about goblins! I love how you show how you can take some basic research and run in many different directions with it. The teacher in me is now coming out and thinking of a myriad of ways to turn research papers on their heads. (Insert evil laugh.)

  5. Tatiana Caldwell

    Nice post. I agree, at least SOME research is needed for any genre you’re writing, even Fantasy.

    By the way, the book I have coming out soon actually DOES happen to focus on a goblin (my version of one, anyways).

  6. melsmag

    I find that fantasy, for me, is one of those that do require a lot of research. Yes you can make up things but you still need some kind of an idea of how you want things to work. Legends are one of the best kind of researches I find.

    • jennifercarson

      Legends are fantastic. And yes, you do need to do a lot of research for fantasy– some people think it’s easy because we just make everything up– but that’ not true! =) thanks for commenting!

  7. Michael

    I am 100% a believer in research; if for no other reason than it can lead to inspiration. But I also am a believer in finding an aspect of a myth or truth that hasn’t been explored, much like you said with creating wizards that were not straight from Hogwarts. The more we know about a subject the more we can deviate from the established paths convincingly.

    • jennifercarson

      You said it well! Once you know the rules, break ’em!
      I also love finding that little aspect that no one has used before! What irks me though is when you use something from a myth and people automatically assume you took it from HP…like some of those things weren’t around before it! sheesh = 0P
      Thanks for commenting!

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