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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Family Matters

            Okay, this is probably some super niche advice but what else am I here for? Can’t write the same blog posts everyone else is doing! Come let Auntie Helen give you some advice: Never go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line. Just kidding. That’s not it. Although Princess Bride has never steered me wrong before… The advice is “make your characters a family tree.”

            Speaking as someone who has at least 18 greats aunts and uncles, four grandpas, cousins from Sweetwater County Wyoming, to Goshen County Wyoming, Texas to Australia , family is not an easy thing to keep track of. Your imaginary friends probably don’t have a neat and tidy little family tree either. It has helped me so much to keep track of the Gishlan royal bloodline.

            Starting with War and Chess… Well we know that Princess Amethyst is King Alabaster’s daughter, right? Well who were Amethyst mother’s parents? And their parents before them? More importantly who were King Alabaster’s parents and where did they come from? And those people? And the people before them? Wait! Didn’t Helen casually mention something about writing about Amethyst’s granddaughters? Who did they come from? Who did she marry? Who did her children marry? It is impossible to keep track of it all in your head. Don’t try it.

            I found this nice little website that won’t ask too many questions or try to link you back to census records─ which is great if your friends are real! But in this case they’re not. No one can see your family tree unless you invite them too and they don’t get too upset if you character’s great aunt ran off with the duke of Flim Flam because she couldn’t handle the pressure of being queen. They even have a space with biography notes where you can write that! And if you have art/fanart/concept art there’s a place for that too! This wonderful website I’m pushing so hard is called Family Echo.

            Definitely make yourself a login so you can save your work! I credit this site with giving me fodder for the next Gishlan books! There’s about 15 generations between Princess Amethyst and the first queen of Gishlan. That’s a whole lot of people to write about. Currently, in my head, Amethyst’s great granddaughter has two kids. So. Many. People.

            Having a mapped out family tree is especially important to me because the way dates work in Gishlan is by season/day/dynasty as compared to month/day/year. So for example War and Chess would have taken place on a day like Spring, 15th day, Alabaster. I toyed with a book for a while that was all a servant girl’s diary. Dates where especially important then. I can’t have characters walking into an abandoned house to find a rumpled up old diary if I can’t figure out who should’ve been the ruling power at the time. I’m telling you, map out your character’s family tree.

            Even if you’re writing that one weird orphan who becomes the chosen one. No one comes out of thin air. Someone had to raise them too. You can either pay homage to their parents or show respect to their biological parents by including them. Even if you don’t use the information in the book it’s something you know about them. Genetics are a powerful thing. I’m pretty sure I have personality traits similar to my great great grandfather.

            And really, reading V.C. Andrews’ [the real V.C. Andrews] Flowers in the Attic series I had to stop and make myself a family tree just so I could keep them all straight. I mean, that one’s gross but it was relevant to what I was doing. If you want to incorporate inbreeding in your fictional story you’re going to need a family tree. (I will only judge you silently.) Your readers might appreciate one too. Even if you want to bring on the main character’s distant cousin of their aunt’s uncle (I’ve got family like that) you need to have it plotted out in your head where they fit. Don’t expect yourself to just carry that around in your brain.

            Making a family tree will help you get to know your main character a lot better, and who knows! Something more may come out of it! Like an entire series of books following the family around! *COUGH* Let it flow, let it fly, Family Echo is my go-to.

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