Researching Things That Don’t Exist

October 29, 2010

By its very name, Speculative Fiction sounds like something you just kind of make up. After all, it’s speculative. It’s right there in the name: you’re just imagining. You don’t need to research it, the way you do with historical fiction (got to get those names and dates right), or technological thrillers (and all their high-tech, high-detail glory), or even mysteries (essentially, you have to plan a crime yourself- you’d better be sure it could actually work).

All right, Science Fiction suggests that maybe you should know a little bit about science. Even though your book is based on science/scientific gizmos that don’t exist yet and therefore can’t be researched, you should know a little about it. Enough to know why no one can hear you scream in space, anyway.

But what about fantasy? There’s no (or much less) science here; this is Fantastic, as in wholly imaginary, Fiction. If magic, magical creatures, and magical lands don’t actually exist, surely you don’t need to research them. You can just write whatever you want, because hey, you are the Author.

Not so much.

It seems to be a pretty common misconception that fantasy and research don’t mix. That’s an unfortunate myth, because that is not the case. Not if you want to write fantasy that functions via some kind of interior logic, has consistent and plausible culture(s), and generally make sense. Readers are willing to suspend their disbelief, but having a colony of carnivorous dragons dwelling in  a “barren wasteland” stretches credulity past the breaking point. Unless the dragons are cannibals, they’ll starve to death in your Plains of Doom. Similarly, a small prairie town is unlikely to be a major trading centre, and if you’ve established that using magic takes hours of preparation, concentration, and ritual, we won’t be impressed if your hero whips a “point and shoot” spell from his back pocket.

Fantasy must follow two sets of rules. The first set is whatever magical rules you come up with to make the story FANTASY, rather than something else. Ideally, these magical rules should be as hard-and-fast as the laws of physics. So if the strength of magic diminishes with distance, I don’t want to see a cabal wreaking havoc halfway across the world. If  we’ve seen all along that to cast a spell, you must donate some of your own blood, and we’re getting to a scene with hungry vampires, I don’t want the heroine to “suddenly” discover that she can do magic by sacrificing a glob of saliva.

The second set of rules comprises all the natural laws we know in our own world… except where they are altered by the first set, and then, only if you tell us about that.

As an exaggerated example, you cannot have cacti in the rainforest. Cacti are highly sensitive to water, and they would die in that much humidity. Simple fact. Unless… you mention that decades ago the Great Witch Geraldine used magic to create a special breed of cacti that can deal with the excess precipitation.

 The main idea here is consistency. Whether magical or natural laws, the rules by which you govern your world should be broken only in the rarest of circumstances, and only if you have a damn good, well-rationalized reason for doing so.

 And the question of research?

 Just as fantasy abides by two sets of rules, its lucky authors get to do two modes of research. For the sake of simplicity, let’s call them Worldbuilding and Book Research. Worldbuilding pretty much covers the first set. This is when you make all those arcane laws of wizardry, design the map, create the people and religions, language and trades. And yes, you can make it up. That’s the great joy of fantasy. Again, the point is to be consistent, to treat the building of a fantasy world as seriously as you would the recreation of a specific historical milieu.

This is where Book Research comes in. Personally, I like giving things a real-life analogue. During the process of creating a city, or country, I try to figure out whereabouts it would be located if it were on Earth. Twisty cobble-stoned streets, buildings so close you can stand in the middle of the street and touch the walls on either side, and a warm, sunny climate? I’d start digging through books on southern France and Italy to get specific details as to the types of plants and animals that live there, a general “flavour,” as well as seasonal weather patterns, and so forth. Having details like that makes your story a) coherent, and b) believable.

With any book you write, you have to do at least some research. But with Speculative Fiction, there’s another expert to consult: you.



  1. Wonderful post . . . even for those of us who don’t dabble in Sci Fi or Fantasy.

    Thanks, Arvik!

    • My pleasure! I just noticed how long my list of sources was.. funny how that happens when researching feels like “fun,” not “work.” 😉

  2. Love it! Love it!
    I did some “research” for one of the stories I’m writing..I posted it on my WordPress. My friends claim it’s not real research, because it’s fantasy, and it all came out of my own head.
    I like to think that there is someone who agrees with me that even fantasy needs research.
    If you want to look at it, here it is:


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