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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I’m Bad at Talking About My Books Part 3: Tales From the Gishlan Wood

            Okay, this is literally the one that’s hardest to talk about. I also did these in order of publication. I’m definitely not chicken! What?!

            I wrote Tales from the Gishlan Wood when I was seventeen, under the advisement of my mentor June Wilson Read. It was a cute relationship. She had her “nest” behind my parent’s house, so she’d always have a way to come home to Wyoming, while splitting her time in North Carolina. I had been visiting since I was tiny, and she even kept board games and crayons for me. When I wrote my first book, War and Chess, I was excited to show my real life author friend what I had made. At fourteen I had already started querying publishers but, of course, I had no luck. (War and Chess was a mess, honestly, and being an author is a bigger responsibility than I could’ve ever imagined.) So June told me “Why don’t you write bios for your characters.” and ya know, as you do, a whole book of short stories fell out.

            Back then, at seventeen, I wanted to know everything I possibly could about the characters. And yeah. That meant writing more than a page about each of them. I sat in my room and pretended to interview them. Suddenly Haylend–*Ehem* King Haylend didn’t seem like such a villain, but “my sweet, misunderstood, villain, baby” You have “UwU” we had “Rawr XD” we are not the same. I learned Teacher P is a recovering alcoholic, I learned what became of Princess Amethyst, and where the blue fairy came from. I learned who Prince Quillpeck grew up to be, and I fell in love with the relationship he has with his wife. I even got to meet Amethyst’s grandchildren! And I loved every second of it. Thought you might too so I published it.

            Let me tell you, publishing was no small feat either! I published War and Chess at 20. It was then I decided I’d published one novel, once a year, until I keeled over. And then God laughed. I think I got the job done at 25, maybe 26? When you can drink legally, you stop caring, I promise.

            Anyway, my parents let me take a year off, [look for a job,] and write. So it was painstaking hours sitting in my father’s chair (I didn’t have a desk at this point), until my back screamed, editing a manuscript I hadn’t touched since I graduated high school. When I finally presented it to my former publishing house they asked me for eight books instead. “Make Tales a series!” they said. “Take it or leave it.” I said. They left it until our contract expired and I walked away. No hard feelings, just wasn’t the right fit.

            I bounced around for a while. That’s where I get all my really weird publishing house stories, which I’ll tell you if you buy me a beer sometime. *Cough* I mean root beer. I write for teenagers. I’m behaving! I had one publisher contact me through my work email, to see if I really worked for James Bond’s Library. Another had a printer in her basement, and part of the contract I was offered meant I’d have to buy 500 books from her. Yeah, all sorts of spice. What really drove me nuts, and made me hesitant to work with any of the more reputable publishers was their lack of enthusiasm for my book. I’d rather work with someone who could put my book in front of 500 people, and likes my work, than someone who could put it in front of 5,000 people, and is totally apathetic. I was holding out for just the right home for my books. I say it all the time “If you’re in Book World for money, get out.” Librarian, author, publisher. Nope. You have to be smart with money so you don’t live in a cardboard box, but at the end of it all, you really have to love what you’re trying to do for the world. I wanted a publishing house that felt the same way. In the time I was holding out, War and Chess fell out of print and the copyright reverted back to me. Suddenly I had two homeless books.

            Grant Smith and I had met at our old publisher. We liked each other’s work and bonded over it. Grant had his own publishing blues, and solved his problems by building his own publishing house, Drakarium Publishing. I’ll be honest, Grant had to wear me down. I was always “No, you just want these books because we’re friends!” but even his kids liked them. And I am so happy he wore me down. First of all, I absolutely love working with my friend! Second, I love how this press is a passion project of his. He is truly interested in bringing the world good books through Drakarium Publishing. And again, reverting to that subject that makes my skin crawl: money. Grant is much more interested in making sure books get into people’s hands than he is in making a quick buck. He actually had to talk me into lowering the price of War and Chess. You can thank Grant for it being $9.99. And in person, it’s nice to see people go “Oh, I can bring my kids two books they’ve never read before for the $20 in my hip pocket.” Seriously, Drakarium Publishing makes beautiful books, because they’re good books, and you can actually afford them. Go check them out on Goodreads. I know this sounds like an ad, but I’m honestly gushy over this.

            Because War and Chess and Tales From the Gishlan Wood now have a home, it frees me up to think about my other two books, To Craft a Nation and Rock at The Bottom Of The Sea. Both are already written, and you can check up on their progress here.

            So yeah, Tales was a passion project, published by a passionate house, so you should buy it passionately. See it on Amazon, or get your signed copy on my Etsy shop.

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