Sarah J. Maas
So, most of you know that I write fantasy. And while I have the luxury of inventing my own worlds and histories, it also involves a ton of research. But if I can make up my own rules, why bother to research anything?
The short answer: because it makes it believable.
The little details really make or break world-building. Learning how our world operates—how people in the past went about their daily lives, how clothes were made before the Industrial Revolution, how battles were won prior to the invention of gunpowder….all of that is immensely useful when world-building for a fantasy novel.
Don’t believe me? Let me show you. Writing QUEEN OF GLASS involved a crap-ton of research over the years. And in the average day of my heroine, Celaena, most of that research comes into play. I’m going to demonstrate just how much research goes on behind the scenes (lol), by providing you guys with a “Day In the Life” look at her schedule.
6:30 AM: Go for a 4-mile jog. Research: How far can someone who is very out of shape (thanks to a year of malnutrition) run? How fast can they run? How long does it TAKE to run 4 miles?
6:45 AM: Pause jog to vomit all over the place. Research: Why do people vomit when they run? Do people vomit if they eat before running? Do people vomit if they DON’T eat before running? How long will it take for someone to get back into shape?
8:00 AM: Bath. Research: History of indoor plumbing. How can I bend the rules so that my semi-medieval castle has running, heated water? When were faucets invented? How did Roman baths work? When were shampoo and conditioner invented? When were towels invented/called ‘towels?’
8:30 AM: Breakfast. Research: What kind of fruits/juices would be available in their climate? Would imported fruits be a rarity? When was porridge invented?
9:00 AM: Get dressed. Research: History of corsets. How does it feel to wear a corset? How quickly can you walk/talk/eat with a corset on? How long did it take for dresses to be made? How costly would such a dress be? History of dresses; browse fashion websites for color/fabric/design ideas. How long does it TAKE to put on undergarments, corset, and then the dress?
9:30 AM: Make-up. Research: What did women use for concealer? Eyeliner? Mascara? Blush? Lipstick? Eye shadow? How costly were these items? What parts of the world did they come from? How did they pluck their eyebrows? History of beauty standards.
10:30 AM: Off to the library. Research: When were libraries invented? When did mankind start writing down its stories? When did mankind start producing bound books? When did the masses start being educated? Where did people usually discuss books? History of the French Salon.
12:00 PM: Lunch. Research: Was it called ‘lunch’ or ‘dinner?’
1:00 PM: Do Cool Assassin Things. Research: How long does it take for someone to die after you slit their throat? How much blood is there? Does it actually spray everywhere? How many inches is it from the chest/skin into the heart? History of weapons. History of ninjas. History of awesome fighting techniques.
7:00 PM: Dinner. Research: Is it ‘dinner’ or ‘supper?’ Research random food items. History of champagne/wine/alcohol.
11:00 PM: Bed. Research: When did people stop wearing ugly nightclothes and start wearing sexy things? Did men sleep in nightgowns? When were fluffy pillows invented? Were fireplaces lit all night?
3:00 AM: Fight some demons lurking in secret passageways. Research: History of demons—for visual ideas, mostly. If you break a bone and/or get a deep scratch/wound, how long does it take to recover? What were traditional herbal substitutes for anesthesia? For fighting against infection? For painkillers?
So, obviously, there is lots of research involved. Sometimes the research doesn’t make it into the actual scene, but the knowledge of it is there/in the background. Usually, I’ll research, learn a bit about the history of (insert topic here), then examine how it can fit into Erilea (the world in which QOG takes place), and how I can twist it to make it my own. Or completely ignore it.
QOG isn’t a fantasy set in one distinct time period that matches up with our own—which requires me to do some research into history to see HOW I can possibly combine different eras in a believable way. It’s really fun to make up my own world history (especially the fashion component), but it also requires a degree of authenticity—which only comes from research.
That’s not to say that you need to research for months and years before writing—in fact, I’ll usually write a scene, then go back and google things like: “History of mascara” to add into the scene later on. And sometimes I don’t find what I’m looking for, in which case I’ll just invent stuff completely.
But when you’re establishing your world, I’d definitely recommend some research (at a minimum, clicking through Wikipedia, lol)—you’d be surprised by how much you’ll learn! And how much of a difference it makes.
Sarah J. Maas is the author of several novels, including QUEEN OF GLASS, a YA fantasy retelling of Cinderella that will be published by Bloomsbury in late 2011. Sarah resides with her husband in Los Angeles. You can visit her blog here.