One of the most underrated parts of writing fiction is background research. While some may say that a writer should only “write what they know,” research is what expands the writer’s repository of knowledge, thus allowing them to write on more subjects with confidence. When I was in graduate school, research was an essential step to perform in the writing process, and now, as a novelist, research still proves important. If a writer invents the characters and story, why is research important? That’s a valid question, and the short answer is that not everything can be “made up” from the writer’s mind without reference to real-world ideas and things.
Consider a fictional disease. While the disease may have a fantastic source, say mold from a dragon’s graveyard, this disease will still spread through some form of contact, such as: inhaling the mold spores, eating tainted flesh, or physical contact. From there, it may continue to spread via air transmission, physical contact, and/or transmission of one or more bodily fluids. How does it spread? What is its infection rate? Its spread pattern? How does a populace respond to an outbreak? Knowing the research on these subjects helps add a sense of realism to a fantastical setting that aids suspension of disbelief and provides the reader with an analogy to aid in understanding a disease with which they have no lived experiences.
Since I write urban fantasy, my research focuses on the cultural traditions surrounding specific folkloric beings who make appearances in my books. Folklore is messy and often contradictory but always illuminating and fascinating. I choose to research my topics for numerous reasons, but the biggest reason is one of ethics. When I borrow the lore and the creatures from cultures that are not my own, it is my responsibility to “do right” by that culture. As someone who has earned an MA in Anthropology, treating other cultures ethically matters to me. I know other urban fantasy authors who believe that their “creative license” allows them to adapt, misinterpret, and throw out factually false information, but I refuse to do that.
But that does not mean that adaptation and creativity have no place. Part of doing my research is knowing what is immutable and what is mutable. Stories change over time so they continue to be relevant; however, some things remain fixed, as they are essential to understanding a culture. A few years ago, a white woman began writing an urban fantasy series that focused on the “last Cherokee skinwalker.” Five minutes of research would reveal that skinwalkers are unique to the Navajo people (very different culture than that of the Cherokee) and that they do not discuss skinwalkers with non-Navajo. This suggested to me that this author took a lot of creative license, which likely meant that something specific to the Navajo would be misrepresented. Was this done maliciously? I doubt it; however, it smacks of disregard and disrespect. Given the history of cultural appropriation among white creatives (and white people in general), researching the culture and the folklore is one way to help reduce the chance of offending that culture and/or of providing false information. Hiring sensitivity readers is another step; one I will discuss in detail at another time.
And I’ve already talked about how I researched county-specific banshee legends while writing Liam’s Doom, so if you’re interested in seeing the fruits of that, you can check out that novel.
My debut novel, Liam’s Doom, is on sale at all major and minor retail outlets from Amazon to Barnes & Noble to Bookshop.org. I request that you support Bookshop.org, as their site supports local and independent bookstores. The eBook is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and through my webstore.
Also, you can find my serialized prequel novel Blood/Lust on my website. New chapters go live at noon each Sunday!