The Value of Story Research

A few weeks ago I was at a write-in with my sister.  She wasn’t writing anything, and when I asked her why, she said she was waiting for books from the library so she could do some research.  “It’s not like I’m writing fantasy, Kit,” she said.

And then I sicced the landsquid on her.

Okay, not really.  I admit, a lot of the appeal of fantasy (to me, at least) is that I get to make up people and places and nobody can tell me I’m wrong about them.  But even so, there’s still a value to researching elements of your story.  The more you know about something, the more authentic your story comes across, the truer it rings to your reader, and the more solid your writing is.

Oh, Kit, you say, why not just write about things you know about?  Okay.  Let’s use this as an example.  My collab partner and I just finished the first draft of our story.  My POV character is a teenaged girl (been there, done that) who is a camp counselor (check).  At one point a camper is startled by a snake and my character tells it’s a harmless snake – but it served my purposes better to know what sort of snakes would be found in the area and which would be harmless.  This is a character who is very familiar with the area so this is information she would know.  (Other things researched during first draft writing: maps of the state of Minnesota, range of kinnickinnick, stitches/skin grafts/rope burns, how easy it is to get a gun in Minnesota, poisonous plants, amount of alcohol needed to knock out a 170 lb teenaged boy and what that same amount would do to a 110 lb teenaged girl, etc.)

Of course, that’s a non-fantasy example, but let’s move on.  A lot of fantasy twists mythology, paranormal events, other fantasy stories, legends, etc.   I’ve got a YA fantasy that’s partially fairy tale satire, so it behooved me to relatively familiar with fairy tales before starting it.  (The MC’s great aunt lives in a gingerbread house.)  For a paranormal romance I spent three months researching angel mythology, early Jewish/Christian/Islamic beliefs, and the Garden of Eden.  And while that story’s a mess, I’m damn proud of the characters and the world.

But Kit, you say, what about off-world fantasy, where you’ve made up the world and the species and everything and it’s not based off of anything?  (Well, first I call shenanigans, but…)  I have a high fantasy trilogy.  I’ve spent over a decade working on world-building and characterization and plot, and even though I’ve made everything up, I’ve still needed to do research.  The main characters belong to a species that lives deep in a forest where there’s little light.  I spent many a camping trip in the Redwood forests of Northern California examining how the light got through the canopy, how it smelled, what sort of groundcover there was, things along those lines.

Was it necessary?  No.  Most people are probably perfectly capable of imagining what the darkest reaches of the forest are like, but to have experienced it, to be able to twist that knowledge into my narrative and setting makes it easier for me to engulf the readers in the story. 

Research.  Do it.  It only makes things stronger.

2 responses to this post.

  1. Things I’ve researched for various fantasy stories:
    – Judaism and Jewish mythology
    – history of Prague
    – various WWII-related things
    – ancient Egypt
    – ancient battles/weaponry/strategy
    – ancient musical instruments
    – desert geology and ecology
    – early pregnancy symptoms
    – cryptozoology
    – history of science
    – Mi’kmaq culture
    – New Brunswick history, geography, ecology



  2. Research. I agree it should be done!


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