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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No One Is Going to Do It For You

            A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far, away, and not in the future because I can’t see that direction, I was in the chow line. There happened to be to writers behind me and I started eves dropping in on their conversation. One writer was a sweet lady who looked like she could make a mean pineapple upside-down cake, trying to write children’s books about dogs, the other was a gentleman about the same age as her who had written an action thriller of some sort.

            The guy looks down at her with these big ol’ puppy dog eyes and says “If I submit your book to publishers will you submit mine?”

            “I uh…”

            “We can trade?” He twists his cap in his hands and tries to look cute.

            I know this woman with the kind face is not going to say “No.” which is a complete sentence, by the way, and I so want to step in and be like “UH-UH!” She finally says “Uh-okay, I guess…” and they swap emails.

            I knew this dude was about to let her work her butt off to get his book published while he switched up on her and “Oooooh, I’ve been too busy!” That’s reason number one you shouldn’t do that with other writers. The second is that they were working in two very different genres. Chances are he reads action thrillers, and she reads kid lit. Because that’s what they enjoy. So there’s very little chance a fellow writer, who is not an agent, will have read any of the books that press makes. Sometimes when I really get heavy on submitting to publishers I wind up with some of my new favorite books coming in the mail. The two that come to mind are Eat Knucklehead, and Three Sailors and A Hermit. Third, there are so many kinds of different publishing houses out there you need to know what you want to find the right one. I’ve been offered multiple contracts for Tales from the Gishlan Wood but the fits weren’t right so we parted ways.

            I’ve had it happen to me too. Friends have asked me to write their books, I’ve dated men who want me to make their career finally get up off the ground (the first step is put down the whiskey bottle, Benjamin. You’re not Hemingway. Make it happen and clear you head so you can function!) And I’ve met people who want me to “help” them find a publisher. I.e. do all the heavy lifting and research.

            I’m happy to cheerlead! I’m happy to text you and hold you accountable! I’m happy to drop you a link that may or may not work for your purposes. But ain’t nobody gunna do it for you. Rachel Hollis told me “No one cares about your dreams as much as you do.” Meaning, out of all those cheerleaders you have no one is going to cry and hurt as much as you will if your dreams don’t come true. Your friends will be sad but it’s not their battle. It’s yours. So stop trying to get others to do your work for you.

            And I mean, I’ve done it too. The last time I was 14 and just wrote War and Chess. We didn’t consistently have a computer and internet at my house because Dad used to take the computer and it’s hotspot with him to work his nightshift as a security guard. So I asked him if he’d research publishers for me while he was at work. Both my parents just laughed and said “Do it yourself, kid.” So I wound up doing it at school a lot, and whenever my father wasn’t working. Gosh, I do not miss explaining to grumpy teachers why I only had internet sometimes. Or a word processor. I used to write my essays in cursive in red ink and count the words by hand. Let’s all stop for a minute and count our blessings.

            The biggest thing in your way is you. I have a friend who writes too. She’s a journalist. She writes and edits on her phone. Ladies, gentleman, and those in-between, that is dedication. I admire her so much. So what’s stopping  you? One of my teachers made us all memorize the mantra “adapt, improvise, overcome”. At the very least you have internet some of the time or you wouldn’t be reading this.

            Setbacks happen. Believe me, I know. I’ve been rereading some old blog posts and they’re hurting my feelings because I really emphasize taking the time to do it right. K, cool, me. That was before I felt like giving up! Guess I just can’t now! You have to power through them, be like water, and find a way around the problem.

            No one cares about your career as much as you do. Make it happen and stop expecting others to do it for you. Do your homework, do your research, keep on keeping on, don’t give up.

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Quality Matters

I’ve got one major pet peeve that will make me drop a good author like a hotcake. Not just the one book. My whole endorsement of their career. I’ll give you a hint… It has to do with the title… That’s right! The quality of their writing!

It affects writers in all stages of their careers. Indies, hobbyists, NY Times Best Sellers, anyone. When a writer sacrifices the quality of their work for putting the piece out there, their careers suffer. I’ve seen some of my favorite series come to awful ends because the writers got tired of writing them. I’ve seen some potentially great indie stories fall flat because no one took the time to polish them up before they put them out there. Let me teach you how to combat that. 

If you’re worried that your fandom is going to be upset that you haven’t published anything new in a while: Babe. Please. I just figured out I can read a book a day. But the books you make will follow you for years. No pressure! What I’m saying is: Babe, babe! When your readers get your book they’re going to devour that sucker in a day. If you’re lucky they might read it twice! But what kind of book do you want to produce? A quick and dirty one that made them go “Wow. That wasn’t up to that author’s usual standard” or one that makes them go “Wow! That was so worth the wait!”

If you’re worried no one’s going to take you seriously because you only have one book on the shelves… or less: People are jerks and will work weekends and holidays to discredit you. (Ope. There it is.) Let them talk! But, make sure your books are the best that they can be before you put them on the shelves. Make sure your next publication sparkles like my freshly polished collection of trumpets! That’ll make their traps clap shut! And if you must publish your work to show you’re writing do it somewhere informal where you can still maintain control over where you work winds up. Try one of those story sharing apps. There’s a million of them. Even Goodreads has a section for original stories. I, personally, use Wattpad. And I can say, I have thrown some of my worst work on there just for a laugh!

What I’m trying to say is: Don’t choose creating a great quantity of writing for public consumption without making sure what you throw to the public is quality writing. By all means! Go make $h!t! Just don’t put $h!t on the shelf. You’ll win more readers making good books, than a ton of books. Go look at Harper Lee.

Join me in July for Go On Adventure to Increase Your Creativity