On the one hand, I really need to stop buying so many second-hand books. On the other hand, this is the best thing I’ve found in ages. I’m really looking forward to getting into the detail of 16th-century nautical life and using it to bring a fantasy story to life.
Anything can count as research.
Of course that’s also the worst thing, if you’re prone to prevarication.
This weekend I went to a historical reenactors’ market with Laura and her aunt. While the ladies were perusing hats and finding bargain fabric for costumes, I instead took the opportunity for some ad hoc writing research. Among the interesting things I saw and discovered were…
Sometimes real weapons are even crazier than those in steampunk and fantasy. Take this combination axe/pistol from Radbourn Designs. It was used in boarding actions by 17th century Italian sailors, so that they could shoot someone out of the way as they swung onto the enemy boat and then immediately start hacking people up. It’s like the Swiss Army Knife of high seas brutality, and the next pirate I write is having one.
According to the chap running Derbyshire Arms, blunderbusses have those wide mouths to make it easier to load them on a moving ship or carriage. It’s those sort of practical details most of us don’t know, and that can make a story more convincing.
This horrifying looking surgeons’ kit includes hooks, second from right, which may have been intended to hold the wound open, allowing the surgeon to finish their work as quickly as possible in the days before anaesthetics and blood transfusions, when speed was of the essence. Though to my modern eye it looks more like a torture device.
I was shown this by Mark Annable, UK Team Captain for Battle of the Nations, the sport where people engage in full-on full-armoured combat. I can’t find the fantastic trailer he showed me, but this should give you an idea of what’s involved:
That is so not for me with my terrible fear of pain, but Mark and his friends clearly love it.
These knives were made by Andy Colley of Aarg Armouries, a third generation blacksmith whose grandfather started the business after serving as a farrier in World War One. Apparently these knife designs are mostly found in coastal areas, and those strangely shaped metal handles are probably designed to make it easier to keep your grip if the knife gets wet. Andy’s theory about the chunky blades is that this was a fashion that arose because metal was expensive, and so having lots of it in your knife, sword or whatever was a way of showing off your wealth.
I learnt so many fascinating details from the day, and have several pages of notes that I’ll be using later. But the main thing that I learnt was how willing people were to talk about their craft. I’ve come away from the day with business cards for half a dozen passionate, excited experts in their fields, people who said that they’d be happy to help me with research questions further down the line. A nice day out with family proved to be a really useful one for me as a writer, and a fascinating one for me as a history geek. So writers, get out there, go to events related to your genre, pick people’s brains – odds are you’ll get some great results.
This weekend is Stockport Viking Market – more research here I come!
Today I have a guest post from writer, scholar and occasional saviour of my sanity everwalker. She has an excellent blog on writing, and today she’s sharing some of her wisdom with us. So without further ado…
When I chose my degree, many many moons ago, I knew perfectly well that Classics would never be of any practical use. As it turns out, however, that’s proven to be incorrect. To date, I’ve built six different cultures off the back of it, as well as a language based on Akkadian (Ancient Mesopotamian) and the gods alone know how many poems.
Let’s Start At The Very Beginning
For me, world-building begins with real life. It may be a fantasy setting but that’s no reason to do all the heavy lifting yourself. History – especially ancient history – has more in the way of weird cultural birthmarks, ridiculous wars and religious madness than you could ever come up with yourself. Use it. Glory in it. And then edit out the stuff that’s too ridiculous to be believable in fiction. Seriously.
1832: Alexandre Dumas visited the Alps, and attended a trial at which two live bears were summoned as witnesses. ~ History Without the Boring Bits, Ian Crofton
I tend to start by working out what basic flavour my fantasy culture should be. Is it European or something more exotic? What era is it, and therefore what level of technology? What’s the environment like, both in terms of terrain and weather? Is there a class/caste system? That gives me some parameters to work with and an idea of where to start borrowing.
As an example, I’m currently building a culture which I want to make slightly exotic and highly decadent. The terrain varies from desert to steppes, and there is a strict caste system in place. Looking at a map of our world, the culture that fits those parameters best is the Persian Empire in the days of Alexander the Great. I have a place and time to start investigating.
Next Stop: Research
Now I need to find some cool bits and pieces to flesh out the history and culture of my fantasy empire. I’m not talking about taking whole centuries of events and transplanting them wholescale. Just the highlights that are both interesting and make the culture feel real. Because I live in London and am therefore ridiculously fortunate in the matter of resources, my first stop is usually the British Museum. Libraries, art galleries, anything like that – it’s all good.
Sticking with this example, I take a look at some friezes and artefacts recovered from various dig sites. I don’t restrict myself to JUST the era of Alex the G. Anything that strikes me as shiny gets noted down. Early Persian kings liked to hunt lions, as a symbol of their authority protecting the people from chaos. They also held lying to be the worst possible sin and went all-out on protecting doors with divine symbols as they considered doorways to be key locations through which good and evil influences could enter.
That doesn’t really cover the truly decadent palace approach that I’m looking for, though. For that I turned to the excellent The Emperor by Ryszard Kapuscinski – a first-hand account of the reign and fall of Haile Selassie, King of Kings, Elect of God, Lion of Judah, etc etc etc. That tells me the relative importance of the second doorman in the Imperial audience chamber and how, during the Hour of Informants, the Emperor fed his exotic animals whilst listening to reports from the Intelligence Bureau.
Make Like Dr. Moreau
Finally, I put it all together by combining real and fantastical elements, and then working out the consequences.
For example, elsewhere in my world setting it’s been established that elves are naturally the best at creative imagination. In other cultures this has led to them excelling as priests, storytellers, artists and so on. In a Persian-like culture, where lying and deceit is the most abhorrent crime, it results in elves being persecuted, declared unclean, and worse.
Another example – I have decided the ruling caste are fae. Again already established elsewhere, they are immortal. What does that mean for a society? The people in charge never change, which contributes massively to political and cultural stagnation. New generations, if politically ambitious, have to resort to literally cut-throat methods of advancement. That sets the tone of the ruling elite.
As far as resources go, there will be constant pressure due to an immortal and increasing population. So that leads to an aggressive expansionist model. The army becomes very important, and operates in the way that the Persian armies did (about which we have plenty of information). It also means that the frontier becomes a place of possibility for the new generations who don’t want to engage in vicious politics. They can set up new settlements in the newly conquered lands, and make a space for themselves that way. So we have an atmosphere for frontier life, and an overview of the country where generations are effectively set up like tree-trunk rings out from the centre.
Ta-da! One fantasy culture based on historical evidence.
Imitation Is The Sincerest Form Of Flattery
Why bother with all that research, I hear you cry? (Well, I don’t because the internet doesn’t work that way and, last time I checked, I wasn’t psychic, but you know what I mean.) Why can’t we just make it all up, using our powerful imaginations and writerly know-how? The answer, of course, is that you can. Of course you can. But there are a few reasons why you might want to consider this kind of approach.
- Using a known culture gives your readers an automatic way in. They can see, from a few choice details, what you’re emulating and instantly populate it much more richly. That makes your story rich in their minds, which can only be a good thing. Guy Gavriel Kaye – a writer that both Andy and I have gone on about in the past – is an expert at doing this. There’s a reason we keep going on about him.
- As previously mentioned, it saves you some heavy lifting. If you want to focus all your writing energies on character and plot development, rather than filling in the details of the cultural background, this is an excellent way to help build up a rich setting without spending massive amounts of time working out a palace protocol that your reader will see one small part of, once.
- Inspiration! By all means make 99.9% of your fantasy culture up wholesale, but looking at existing things can give you some great inspiration. Did you know, for example, that Spartans gave women who died in childbirth a warrior’s funeral? Or that the labyrinth from the Minotaur myth actually comes from the labrys – the name of the ceremonial double-headed axe used in Cretan ceremonies, combined with a tendency to decorate the palace floors in mosaic spirals? That’s cool stuff which can inspire whole new avenues of make-believe you never would have thought of otherwise.
- People care about the strangest, most insignificant things. The less you get it wrong, the less upset they’ll be. Terry Pratchett once said that a fan drew a map of the Discworld according to descriptions given in various books, and worked out that the apparent wettest place in the continent was actually sitting in a rain shadow. Distracting people from the story is a bad thing, m’kay? Research – and borrowing from reality – helps avoid it.
- It’s fun? Well, I think it is.
One of my best ever reading experiences – possibly the single best ever – was going to the National Archives in Kew. The recent fire there, and Russell Phillips discussing his latest trip into the archives, got me all nostalgic for that great experience.
Doing the Doctorate
In my wild and crazy youth I wanted to be a historian. I got funding to do a PhD in medieval history at Durham, the place where I’d done my undergrad and MA, as well as a department with some pretty big names in that field.
Some pretty big beards too. The fantastic Robin Frame would not have looked out of place in an American Civil War command staff.
PhDs are all about the original research, which in my case meant reading through piles of published primary sources and, once they’d run out of fresh revelations, going to the documents that weren’t in print – the archives at Kew.
So I took a trip down to London, borrowed a friend’s sofa for the week, and settled down to work.
Entering the National Archives was a lot like entering any old office building. There was some security – it’s a high profile place full of unique treasures – but at first glimpse it was mostly a cafe, some lockers and a small visitors’ display. I went upstairs to the reading rooms, searched the catalogue for what I was after, and handed my order in at the desk. All those precious documents weren’t just out on show.
Then I waited.
The smell of history
At last out it came. A roll recording lands held and confiscated following the revolt against Edward II in 1321-2. This huge parchment roll, which I had to hold open with special weights, was completely unique. Nearly seven hundred years old, never copied and certainly never published. I could smell the past rising up to meet me, rich and warm and fading as an autumn afternoon. I imagined a medieval scribe scratching away at those very pages to set these details on the record.
Terribly dull details.
Because that’s the thing. The interesting stuff had been published. This document was of value to historians poking into specific corners of history, willing to spend hours reading for just a few new details, but…
Well, lets just say that I never finished that PhD.
Our glorious past
I’m glad I tried the PhD. I’m very glad I went down to Kew and got to spend time pouring over those wonderful old documents in their reading room. There’s a thrill to touching history that you can’t get from other things.
While I’m a big advocate for going digital on reading in general, I’m glad we still have space for the older ways. And if you ever have reason to go to an archive like that one then seize the opportunity. It’s worth every moment.
Photo by Jim Linwood via Flickr creative commons
I’ve long held to the theory that anything can be interesting if you look at it in enough depth. The pleasure of listening to Mark Kermode’s film reviews doesn’t come from expecting to see the films but from listening to him talk intelligently and passionately about a topic he loves. Books on fonts or map making can become enthralling by taking the right angle in addressing their subject.
But there are certain topics I have always thought of as unutterably dull, and one of them is motor racing. I mean seriously, they just drive round and round in circles making noise and smoke – what’s so exciting about that? The only time it gets interesting is when it goes horribly wrong, and I don’t enjoy seeing people go through real life car crashes. If I want that sort of entertainment I’ll watch a Jason Statham movie – the camera angles will be better and there might be a fight scene too.
But today I had to read about motor racing for a piece of freelance work. I was writing about changes to Formula One rules this year and the challenges this raises for people building and designing cars. I’m no engineer, I’m no car enthusiast, and I’m certainly not someone with a deep and abiding love of rules and regulations. I was all ready to yawn my way through this one.
And yet, to my complete surprise, it fast became fascinating. Looking beneath the bonnet of motor sports, seeing how designs arise from competing interests of safety, excitement, aesthetics and even environmental concerns. Recognising the huge chains of people and organisations involved in making the sport work. Appreciating the precision engineering that goes into every detail of car design, making some of the articles read like passages from a book on spaceships. Even the cursory reading needed for a single blog article involved varied and complex combinations of engineering and game design.
This doesn’t mean that I’m going to start watching motor sports, or that I’ve got over my deep and abiding loathing of Jeremy Clarkson. But maybe next time someone mentions Formula One I’ll pay a little more attention.
There’s a difference between enjoying the process of writing and enjoying the thing you’re writing about. I’m always going to enjoy writing stories because they’re something for which I have a passion. But the risk, when I decided to try to make a living by writing, lay in whether I’d enjoy writing about other things. I couldn’t know for sure whether I’d enjoy writing for its own sake, regardless of the content.
Fortunately, it turns out that I do. Over the past week I’ve written about toothpaste, sunglasses, the Battle of Agincourt, and those special drugs for men that anonymous Canadian pharmacies keep emailing me about. I’ve applied for work writing about recipes, chiropractic technology and new developments in the world of HR. And while there have been moments that have strained my brain – 400 words about a wooden cube, for example – I’ve enjoyed it all. I’ve enjoyed the challenge of finding interesting ways to write about uninteresting things. I’ve enjoyed the learning that comes from quickly brushing up on a subject for an assignment. And I’ve really enjoyed putting one word before the next, working out the best ways to say things, going with the flow of the words.
Get out there and write. Enjoy letting the words spill out onto your screen, no matter what it’s about.
And now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go research vegan cheesecakes. The words demand it!
Research has shown that reading novels that make you think, that stretch your mind and challenge you to get inside the heads of others, increases your empathy. It may not take much empathy on your part to work out that I’m not surprised.
Literature, along with the other arts, is often treated as a nice thing to have, a way to escape from our ordinary lives. But it’s so much more than that. It’s a way to transform the way we think, to get into the mental space of other people, to help us relate to our fellow human beings.
The study, by the New School for Social Research in New York, also found that reading books off the Amazon bestseller list didn’t have the same benefit. Having read two whole Dan Brown novels, I’m not surprised, though I wonder how much that’s about the texts themselves rather than how we approach them. And the idea of dividing literature into dumb bestsellers and smart literary fiction is a whole other problem I won’t get into today.
I’m off to read a book – a stinking headache is making me hate the world this morning, and I could do with the empathy. Meanwhile, if you’ve got any thoughts on this, or any books that have really helped you to understand other people, leave a note below.