Yes, Virginia. There is research in Fantasy Writing.

            So I work in History Land, rather than Library Land. Wild shift, but there you have it. Because I’m trying to keep up with the people I work with, I wind up doing a lot of reading. I have a goal to read one non-fiction book a week, because I have perfected the art of skimming text, and retaining important information… It will take me a month or more to read a novel. Shuddup.

            Anyway, my coworker and I got on the subject of historians, and then broadened out to non-fiction writers in general who don’t do proper amounts of research, and fill in the gaps with fiction. They are annoying, and sometimes it’s an honest mistake. When it’s not, and someone bends the timeline to fit their narrative, that’s when it really makes my blood boil.

            If you think your ears were burning, then I was ranting about you at work, because not only did you publish inaccurate information, you had the audacity to target one my friends in a public forum. You opened your mouth, and used your influence in your community to do permanent and irreparable damage to their life, and career(s, who has one job anymore?), because you were jealous they’re a better human being than you ever will be, and probably more talented. But hey, how can we find out if they’re too heartbroken to write? Congratulations, you’ve beat someone who wasn’t competing with you, but trying to work by your side. The only reason I haven’t stooped to your level and called you out by name, is because God reminded me I’m a Christian and revenge belongs to Him. Also, yeah. You need to check over your manuscript for the reprint. That’s not how it went down.

            If you think your ears were burning because you did something awkward at that conference, where we were hanging out: Don’t worry about it, fam. I’m awkward too. I get two drinks in me and start taking selfies with people I just met. By the way, did I ever send that to you? Text me. Honestly, mistakes happen. Sometimes we make assumptions without having all the information, and then we have to change because we found new information. It’s chill, man. Just fix it for the reprint.

            Anyway, the Nice Lady in the room, started giggling and asked “Helen, remind me what you write again?”

            “Young adult fantasy, ma’am.”

            “Ah. And in fantasy, I’m sure there’s not much research, because you’re making up everything, right?”

            And unfortunately, I hit her with the “WeLl AcTuAlLy” and not in that tone, on purpose. I just know how I probably sound. And poor Nice Lady got trapped in a conversation about how I am so fricking frustrated with the intricacies of the Gishlan eco-system.  Like I told her, “I don’t want a palm tree, just growing next to a cottonwood.” which, made her giggle, because of course, she’s nice, and was originally gently suggesting, maybe, just maybe, I should be nicer too. But I went on to explain “I had to make sure the soil would support cotton crops, because otherwise, everyone would have to wear leather.” The ecosystem mimics my homeland, Goshen County, with heavy spoonfuls of Oregon and California. Because a fourteen year old started this series for me, and she wrote a beautiful looking place that felt like home. I had family in all three places. Do you know how not impressive a redwood is to a four year old? Everything is big. What’s a big tree? Did you know we have cotton in the Bible Belt because of an iceberg that predated humanity deposited enough PH in the soil when it melted? The other part of the world where cotton grows easily is India. I had to learn that, so I could give us those nice princess dresses we all love so dearly.

            I had to think about where they got wood to build furniture, where their rock quarries were, what kind of stone they had, I had to think about what kind of food they were able to grow, I had to look at the blue prints of multiple castles, to see how I wanted to build Slipsong Castle, which has housed 19 generations of Amethyst’s family, thus far. I just had to log in to an online database to tell you that. I had to build the Gishlan royals their own family tree, to keep them all straight. There is only so much land will support and I have to have approximate knowledge of these things so I don’t break science.

            I didn’t tell the Nice Lady this because it was some sick own. It was just the truth. Yes, I can make up crap as I go along. But I wanna make up good crap, so I choose to research. I think she was actually interested, and curious, when I explained things like “If you have giant mushroom farmers, you need them to have an economy for mushrooms, an ecosystem that will support the mushrooms, a purpose for growing them, and you need to know how mushrooms work or the mycologists will come after you.” We can’t have the mushie farmers gathering their seeds in the fall. (Mushrooms don’t have seeds. They produce spores. So when you have that urge to kick shrooms in the field, it’s because that’s how they spread, and at one point, the instinct to kick the shroom probably kept some of your ancestors alive… Either that or the mushrooms are farming us for our delicious rotting corpses, and they told you to smack their sex organs to further their agenda. Cool right?!) Buy the t-shirt here.

            So this is me telling you to go ahead and lose yourself in your research. Write what you know, but go forth and know more! The libraries, museums, and archives are here to help you do just that… The mushrooms on the other hand…

            No one wants to see your character chase the bad guy through the house with a broadsword, and then get enlisted in the war, and go into battle with a cutlass. (Because I will die if I don’t over explain, everything, to everyone, all of the time: broadswords and claymores are supposed to be used in open spaces. Like fields. Battle fields. Cutlasses are smaller, and easy to maneuver around a confined space. Like your apartment. Which is why I sleep with one.) Guys, I’m telling you, if you’re a fantasy writer, get yourself a blacksmith. Here! Borrow mine! Lonnie is amazing and has spent hours teaching me about steel grades, knife types, general maintenance, and who else knows. I just absorb. One of these days, I will have him forge me a broadsword so I can practice acting out scenes before I put them on paper. Research! The one I have now, the balance is way off, and the pommel obviously isn’t doing anything.

            Even when I was writing silly fanfiction for the The Road to El Dorado meme group, I took my happy self to the library, and asked for books about the Aztecs… In doing so, I found out I should’ve asked for Mayan! Either way, I wound up learning a lot about the culture, and the people. “You can’t write offensive content about a mermaid, because mermaids don’t exist.”–or so an indigenous woman sang to me on Tik Tok, to the tune of ‘Colors of The Wind’. If you have skin, and a culture, and you choose to write characters with different colored skin, and a different culture than yours, I strongly recommend you listen to people with that skin tone, and culture, talk about their experiences. Maybe even hire a sensitivity reader. There are plenty of content creators on social media, that will voice their frustrations with the entertainment industry, talk about their culture, and their experiences as a human with skin, that mushrooms will eventually eat. I don’t recommend you ask these content creators to work for you for free (you do that, you get what you deserve), but I recommend you actually consume their content and learn from it. Although the fic remains unfinished, I’m pretty fricking proud of what I made.

            So yeah, that’s my advice for this month. Find what interests you, pull on a thread, then threaten your kidnappers with fan theories about ‘El Dorado’ and how it ties in to Mayan mythos. Google the domestication of cats, then have your characters ride large ones through your cotton fields! Write about how Alaska doesn’t really grow vegetables, but people still thrive there. Learn how to darn socks, and can fruit. Teach yourself folk magic, so you can borrow it for your wizards. Read old magazines from the 60’s, so you can get a handle on the fashion. Trap your entomologist friend with the sweet allure of coffee so you can try to understand how he’s trying to cure cancer with fly brains. After all, I was just picking my coworker’s brain about herbal remedies for colds, so I could give plants to my imaginary friends! Just go have some fun doing research! It’s still important, and kinda fun. 

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Different Books Hit Different People Different Ways

  Hey, that three star review has nothing to do with you.

            I know. Wild. They’re really not trying to insult you or your artistry.

            Not to braaaaaaaag or anything but I read over 100 books in quarantine. By the time you read this I’ll probably be up to 150. And you know what? I didn’t particularly care for every book I read. Here’s my personal rating system:

            ★★★★★ “Omigob, this book is amazing, everyone in the world should read it.”

            ★★★★☆ “This book is pretty good.”, “This book is really good, but this author is incredible and I feel like they could’ve done better”, “This is actually a five star book but I haven’t taken my dinner out of the microwave yet so I’m a little hangry.”

            ★★★☆☆ “All my friends thought it was cool but I can’t understand it with my pea brain”, “Meh.”, “This fantasy novel broke physics too many times.”

            ★★☆☆☆ “I hated it but I have scruples and won’t give one star.”, “I took off a star every time a female character was harmed to further the plot, but the story line was still good.”, “I managed to slog through this.”

            ★☆☆☆☆ “This book was ridiculously problematic. Seriously, they were more sympathetic to social issues in the 1960’s. I can’t believe this is published this year. The only reason I haven’t lit my copy on fire is because I believe in freedom of the press.”, “My friend Ann Miner told me ‘life is too short for bad books’. She was right. Thus, in her memory I will not be finishing this book.”, “Andrew Ne!derman, stop pretending to be VC Andrews.”

      You see that? The only place where it was about the author was when I didn’t feel like they had done their personal best… Or they were pretending to be an absolute queen who deserves to rest in peace without her name dragged through the mud. A rating on your book has very little to do with you.

            In example, I try to read blind.  I read Cursed Pirate Girl by Jeremy A. Bastion. I adored it! It was incredible! The art was breath taking! The storyline had me enraptured. But then I read the second one. It was also breath taking, enrapturing, and incredible… But maybe a little discombobulated. The illustrations were to die for! But then that cliff hanger… So I gave the first one five stars, and the second four. I gave The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern three stars. If you haven’t heard of that one I promise you’re about to. It’s extremely popular! It was good, but I’m not cool enough to get it. None of that was meant to be an attack on the author.

            I know a low rating can feel like a personal attack. In fact, one of my one star reviews is a personal attack. I told one of my former friends he was wrong to revenge porn his ex-girlfriend and told him I didn’t want to be around him. That was the result. But that’s neither here nor there! Sometimes, your book shaped baby just doesn’t speak to others the way it spoke to you. If you must read your ratings see what the common theme is. Maybe Grammerly isn’t the best line editor. Maybe you need to stop using sexual assault as a plot device. Maybe you’re marketing to the wrong audience! If you’re going to torment yourself, at least learn from it.

            As someone who used to message innocents who gave anything less than five stars (SORRY!) and got blocked multiple times for doing that (my sincerest apologies!) because I was hoping for more in depth feedback (really, it won’t happen again!) it’s best to let it go. Amy Tan doesn’t read her reviews. You and I aren’t Amy Tan, buckaroo, but just like people aren’t obligated to give us more in depth feedback. We’re not obligated to read reviews if they’re just going to do a number on our mental health.

            The best I can tell you is to gain a team of freelancers who are incredible at what they do, and pay them well to do it. That way, when someone does run up and slap that one star on your book, you can know you did your dang-est to make the finest book you could possibly make.

How To Donate Your Book to a Library

            Having worked for James Bond’s library I have up close and personal experience with the subject. But every library is different so I turned to the Library Think Tank – #ALATT on Facebook. One of the biggest groups of librarians online. I asked them what’s their process for accepting donations from indie authors. (You’re not James Patterson. I promise.)

            The short answer: Don’t.

            If you’re afraid to have your feelings hurt you can stop reading right here. Otherwise, I’m going to hurt your feelings.

  • Build a connection with your library.

The library you visited on vacation and casually decided to gift them a copy of your book is more likely to put it in the book sale rather than on the shelves. Your local library, where people know you, and actually like you are more likely to support you. People in your hometown want to read your book but some folks just don’t have the cash to get their own copy. Your local librarians understand this. If they think there’s patrons that want to read your book they will be twice as likely to actually put it in the connection.

DO NOT just buy a copy of your own book from Amazon and ship it to the library without a note. It’s a sure fire way to make a librarian go “What’s this? Hmm. Weird.” Then toss it in the cart that runs over to the book sale without a second thought. I’ve seen that happen more than once.

  • Get reviews.

Yes. Even if you and the librarian have matching friendship bracelets you need to get reviews. Preferably from people who don’t like you. Or just don’t know you! Embracing the stranger danger is probably best in this case!

Why? Because librarians have a lot to do and don’t feel like reading your book in their personal time. (I told you I’d hurt your feelings.) Personal time is when you can read Chuck Tingle if you want to! Or fan fiction! They want to read the reviews at work and see if it’s a good fit for the library’s collection. Also, the librarian you’re friends with might not be the librarian in charge of acquisitions.  The folks in cataloging get the final say. That’s their entire job. And if they can’t quickly discern if your book fits the collection they’re going to set it aside with every intention of cataloging it later. Later could very well mean never.

  • You gave a gift. Don’t pester them.

You remember that time your aunt gave you that weird bowl with cats painted all over it, and she got mad you didn’t fill it with Orange Fluff and bring it to Christmas? But you still had it. It was just in your house holding out of season fruits you paid too much money for? And then because she made a big deal out of it you started resenting it and now it sits in your cupboard holding other bowls? Yeah. That’s what happens if you call them up twice a week and ask if your book is on the shelf yet. That’s the trickiest part of gifts. When you give someone a gift they’re under no obligation to use it. Hopefully they like it. Don’t be your mean aunt.

  • Build a quality book.

First, turn to page 101 in War and Chess. Now click this link. This is why I don’t deserve a PS5. Out of all the book signings I’ve had, and all the places I’ve been to, there are five places in the world that have my book. All of them are in Wyoming.

Get yourself a good copy editor, an ISBN, and there are a lot of libraries that absolutely require your book be translated in English. America has no official language but English seems to be the most common tongue. If your book has type-os, ugly cover art that doesn’t match the story, disturbing imagery for the target audience─ There was one librarian who told me a story about reading a book about the tooth fairy to her story time kids. It was written by a local author. But what made it memorable was the tooth fairy ripping off her face in the end. That story time group is in middle school now but they still pop in and complain about their shared trauma.─ all of these little things will prevent your book from entering a public library’s collection.

            Last of all, you need to understand that your book might not make it in. Every library is different. Some libraries have an acquisitions board! Some libraries are prepared for you and have instructions on their websites! But you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take. The real trick to getting your book in a library is putting in the time and work, and making a good book. There’s more to books than plot. If you do make it in understand you’re lucky and always say thank you.

Join me next year for a whole new bundle of blog posts! Don’t forget to subscribe so you won’t miss a thing. Thank you for all your support. You reading this means you helped me achieve my goals of keeping a monthly blog for one year! Thank you! As always, if you’ve got questions, something I didn’t address yet, or you just want to say “Hi” go visit that Contact tab off to the left. I practically live on social media! Merry Christmas, Happy Yule, Happy Hanukkah, and New Years! (We survived!) Be blessed.