Thursday, December 1, 2011

Guest Post: Why Bother Doing Research When You Write Fantasy? by Resa Nelson

Resa Nelson is joining us today to discuss the very important topic of research!

If you write fantasy, one of the great advantages is that you can make up anything you want. So why bother doing research?

Most writers don’t. But my readers tell me it’s obvious to them which writers do their homework and which ones don’t. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with making everything up from scratch – some writers who take this approach write exquisite books. But my experience has been that research shapes and changes my idea of what I think I want to write.

I got the research bug in 1988 when I made my first professional short story sale. It’s a science fiction story about a female soccer star who suddenly becomes a quadriplegic and learns to walk again with the aid of technology. One of my fan letters came from a paraplegic who told me I nailed the emotional side of the story but that the science could have been better if I’d done some research. I thought a lot about his letter and decided he was right. From that point on, whether my short stories were science fiction or fantasy or horror, I got into the habit of doing research. So by the time I began selling novels, doing research had become part of my process. But I had no idea what kind of rollercoaster ride I was about to get on.

My first book takes place in a medieval world. I see the world as being a parallel world to ours, but I wanted to learn about the Middle Ages because history is one of my weak points. I started out doing book research and decided to read as much as I could, from the fall of the Roman Empire to the Renaissance. I did have one ace up my sleeve: I’ve always loved ancient cultures, including the Vikings. For many years I’d collected books about Vikings and gone to museum exhibits and even traveled to countries and visited ruins where Vikings once lived. I modeled my book on the Viking era, but I wanted to know about what led up to that era, what was going on in the rest of the world, and what happened after the Vikings were converted. While I read, I discovered interesting tidbits here and there that stayed in my head. Those tidbits became details in my book. When I decided to turn my first book into a 4-book series, those interesting little tidbits I found in history books evolved into major influences that shaped the rest of the books in the series. In other words, those tidbits made it easy for me to see the path the series should take, and I’m not sure I could have expanded the first book into a series if I hadn’t read dozens of history books.

But I took an extra step while researching my first book. My main character is a woman who makes swords for dragonslayers. So I thought, how can I write about a woman who’s a blacksmith unless I try it myself? I was at a science fiction convention and went to dinner with a bunch of friends and fellow writers. I started talking about how I was writing a novel and needed to learn blacksmithing. One of my friends piped up and told me where I could find a blacksmithing course! So I signed up and soon became the only woman surrounded by big, burly men who had no trouble standing at an anvil and hammering iron for four hours straight. At first I felt frustrated. I couldn’t keep up with my classmates and I failed to finish my projects. Instead of ending up at the end of each night with a nicely forged fire rake or coat rack or pair of tongs, I had a half-forged, useless lump of iron. I asked my teacher and classmates for advice and took it. By the end of the course, I was keeping up with the men.

During the last class I brought a small notebook with me and wrote down all the details I could see and smell: the different colors of smoke and how the smoke moved as I built a forging fire. The way the color of the iron changed when heated. The touch and feel of the tools I used and the surface of my anvil. All of these details went into my book, along with my experience of figuring out how to keep up with the men. These details fleshed out my main character in all kinds of ways. And because these details changed the character I thought I was going to create, it changed the course of the first book and the entire series. If I’d never done research, I probably would have written just one book and it would have turned out very differently. I think it would have been a much weaker novel.

I’ve also had the opposite experience of “write what you know,” which I think is incredibly good advice. I’ve been a lifelong fan of ancient Egypt and always wanted to write a book about it. I came up with an idea to write a fantasy/mystery/thriller that takes place in our world right now – but somewhere in the world there’s a place where people live like they did in ancient Egypt, and they don’t like foreigners. I already had most of what I needed to write the book – except for one thing. I have a few different translations of the Book of the Dead, which is essentially a book that tells you all the spells you need to say when you go on a dangerous journey through the Underworld after you die. The idea is that the journey is fraught with peril, but as long as you have the right words to say, you can get past any monster you face. I’ve always known that the journey consists of 12 hours and that you face a different monster or obstacle in each hour. I thought I’d like to include someone going through this journey in my novel, but I thought, “Where exactly does each hour take place? What exactly happens in each hour? And what are the monsters like?”

I belong to an online group for Egyptologists (even though I’m not one), and someone recommended a book that answered my questions! Once I read the book, I realized my original idea of watching a character go through every hour of this journey would be boring. I’d have to change my original plan. But that led me to come up with other ideas that sent my plan for the book in an exciting new direction that I never would have thought of if I hadn’t done the research.

At the end of the day, writers are individuals and have to decide what’s right for them. What’s right for me may be wrong for another writer, and vice versa. Doing research isn’t going to work for everyone. But I sure do love it!

Resa Nelson is the author of The Dragonslayer’s Sword (Book 1 in her 4-book Dragonslayer series), which was nominated for the Nebula Award and was a finalist for the EPPIE Award. Book 2 (The Iron Maiden) is scheduled for publication on December 13, 2011, and Book 3 (The Stone of Darkness) is slated for a June release. She is also the author of Our Lady of the Absolute, a novel about a modern-day society based on ancient Egypt. Her books are available in e-book format (from and trade paperback (,, To get a free “mini” e-book of the two short stories that inspired her Dragonslayer series, sign up for her monthly newsletter at

Thank you so much, Resa!


Subscribe: rss Follow: twitter goodreads Contact: email

1 comment:

  1. What a great post! I'm trying myself at fantasy writing a little and I from me research is certainly necessary. of course, I'm nowhere as far as Mrs. Nelson, so her post is very inspiring to me and I think she gives good advice. Thanks for sharing!


Follow Me on Twitter! RSS Feed Email Me! Friend Me on Goodreads! Follow Me on Instagram!

Powered by Blogger