Research, Research, Research!

18 Oct


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.


44 Responses to “Research, Research, Research!”

  1. Marina October 18, 2010 at 12:25 AM #

    Wow, that’s very detailed. I’ve never even thought of it that way. Or about all of the components and how much we take for granted. Although I research when certain words became popular, because even words like Dad and Mom are fairly new- which is just weird to think about.
    Thanks, this was very helpful!

    • Sarah J. Maas October 18, 2010 at 3:38 PM #

      Thank you!

      One of the things I always struggle with when writing fantasy is how my protagonists address their parents. Calling them “dad” and “mom” doesn’t fit, but calling them “mother” and “father” seems really stiff and awkward. And using “Mama” or “Papa” just sounds silly to me.

  2. amkuska October 18, 2010 at 12:28 AM #

    Oh my gosh! You wrote queen of glass?? I read that on fictionpress and loved the first book!

    • Sarah J. Maas October 18, 2010 at 3:38 PM #

      Haha, yes, I did!!! And thank you!! 😀

  3. Sammi K Walker October 18, 2010 at 2:52 AM #

    “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?”

    Oooh, if I remember correctly, berries were rare in Adarlan/came from Wendlyn (I’m not even sure if I’m spelling these right…)

    • Sarah J. Maas October 18, 2010 at 3:40 PM #

      Haha, you DID spell them right!

      And the whole berry thing actually got cut, because I realized that there’s no reason why raspberries/blueberries/blackberries wouldn’t grow in Adarlan’s climate…and that berries probably wouldn’t survive a 3-week sea journey from Wendlyn to Adarlan. XD

      • Sammi K Walker October 18, 2010 at 4:05 PM #

        Aaw, that’s too bad, I think it gave an extra dose of believability to the world. But I get what you mean… I didn’t really picture Adarlan as the kind of place where berries couldn’t grow. Oh well, at least I got to read the fictionpress version first. Which reminds me, QOG comes out in, what, a year? I’m SO ridiculously excited! I work in the kids department at my B&N (so we’re also in charge of YA), I hope I can get QOG a stepladder or table. 😀

        • Sarah J. Maas October 18, 2010 at 4:10 PM #

          Zeeeeeep!!! That would be BEYOND awesome!!! THANK YOUUU! 😀 And–we don’t have a release date for QOG yet…it could be any time from late 2011 to early 2012…*sigh*

          And–perhaps I should have clarified…I changed things so that in Books 1 and 2 of QOG, it’s winter, so berries are…impossible to come by for anyone. But in Book 3 (which is now when Celaena goes to Wendlyn), it’s springtime, and because they have a warmer climate (and magic!) in Wendlyn, there are already berries all over the place. So, her guzzling down berries in Wendlyn is more because she’s gone all winter without them, rather than an embargo between the two countries. 😛

          …Clearly, the berry dilemma was some of the most important research/thinking I did while writing the series.

          • Sammi K Walker October 18, 2010 at 11:36 PM #

            The wait will be well worth it. 🙂

  4. Aurora Blackguard October 18, 2010 at 3:31 AM #

    LOL. I knew there was a lot of thinking involved in worldbuilding but that’s A LOT of thinking. No wonder QoG is so awesome. Yeah, I’m flattering you. Rubbing in for a chance at an ARC 😉 I’m joking.

    Question: How did you get all that information on how Celaena kills people??

    • Sarah J. Maas October 18, 2010 at 3:42 PM #

      lol, awww! Thanks!!! Hopefully I’ll get a few ARCs and be able to have a contest or something…

      And as for that information…lol, googling stuff was somewhat useful, but watching documentaries on murderers and infamous criminals helped, too. Watching movies also helped for the visual inspiration. And OMG I sound so creepy and insane.

  5. Angela October 18, 2010 at 6:10 AM #

    I loved this post, and I found it useful. I understand how you have to do all this research since I write historical romances. Usually, I just write the first draft with all its historical inaccuracies and do the complicated research as I edit.

    • Sarah J. Maas October 18, 2010 at 3:45 PM #

      I love historical fiction, but one of the reasons I’ve never considered writing it is because of the crapton of research you have to do! I’m so impressed that you write it….How much research do you actually wind up doing?

      • Angela October 18, 2010 at 4:21 PM #

        Well, I have read a lot of historical romances and familiarize myself with the period I`m writing about. I come up with a plot and characters, and I begin writing. When I finish the first draft, I go back and look up the tiny details, such as if they had matches or how they lit fires or maybe what they ate for tea.

        • Angela October 18, 2010 at 4:22 PM #

          On the other hand, I have trouble writing fantasy, because I have to create this entire world. I think it`s easier when there`s a world out there that`s already created and has its own rules for me to follow.

  6. Olga October 18, 2010 at 7:36 AM #

    For me, it’s far too easy to get distracted from writing when I research, so that’s why I live my life in segments. Reading is for general erudition, picking up random bits of potentially useful information, and novels. Writing is for – well, writing, actually. 😛 Helloooooooo READING mode!

    • Sarah J. Maas October 18, 2010 at 3:46 PM #

      Haha, yeah, I definitely can get caught up in research to the point where hours have suddenly passed and I have NO idea where the time went….

  7. Rowenna October 18, 2010 at 8:55 AM #

    I’ll go ahead and say I’m a giant geek and love researching 🙂 Me and the library…we have fun together. And I really do the old-school thing go to the library and raid the stacks, too!

    Because I write historicals, the research is sometimes never-ending…in a good way. I tend to be inspired by research, too–a scene in my most recent was inspired by a brief anectdote I read in a book (one of those “OMG I never realized that happened! Must use this!” moments) and turned out to be (for my beta readers) one of the favorite and most provocative scenes. All because I was looking up the answer to an entirely different question!

    PS I can help you out with that corset question if you ever need to know more 🙂

    • Sarah J. Maas October 18, 2010 at 3:48 PM #

      That is AWESOME!!! I love it when stuff like that happens!

      And yes–doing research in an actual library is SO much fun. I always feel so old-school awesome when browsing through stacks…and piling a desk high with books to flip through. *sigh* I should join a library out here in Los Angeles…But I don’t think there are super-awesome libraries out here (not like the ones on the east coast, anyway).

      • Sammi K Walker October 20, 2010 at 1:43 AM #

        I don’t know if it’s still there, but when I was little (maybe 9?) the YMCA would take us to the library in downtown LA. I remember it being really grand and huge… But maybe I was just little?

        Google images “Downtown Los Angeles library” and there are some pretty great photos. 🙂

  8. Caitlin October 18, 2010 at 9:28 AM #

    I love research! It can be so much fun – and you’re right, looking up things about historical clothes is awesome!

    • Sarah J. Maas October 18, 2010 at 3:50 PM #

      I looooove learning about the history of fashion! That’s my favorite kind of research. 🙂

  9. Chele October 18, 2010 at 10:21 AM #

    Oh wow. I’ve always known I’d need to research plenty when I’m worldbuilding, but WHOA. It’s a little daunting, to be honest, but sort of exciting too pahaha.

    As a side note, I gotta wonder what a random busybody would’ve thought if they’d seen you google how long it takes someone to die from a slit throat XD

    Yay great post!

    • Sarah J. Maas October 18, 2010 at 3:55 PM #

      HAHA, I’m sure that if I’m ever the target of an investigation for some crime, my search history will convict me for sure. 😛

      Also, don’t be daunted by research stuff! I did that stuff over years and years…it certainly wasn’t all at once. 🙂

      And thank you!

  10. Jia October 18, 2010 at 10:50 AM #

    Thanks for this post! It was really useful seeing how you made use of research in your writing. I tend to get hung up on research because I always feel like there are things that I don’t know enough to make my world believable (I write fantasy too), but sometimes I do it so much it paralyzes me and I don’t even dare to start!

    • Sarah J. Maas October 18, 2010 at 3:56 PM #

      Haha, I’d do the research in small bits if you tend to get overwhelmed by it. Like, I think the most important thing is writing your story FIRST…then, when you’re doing revisions, go through and consider the spots where you might need to do a bit more research. Most of the time, the research I do doesn’t directly go into the manuscript, but just helps ME get a better sense of the world. 🙂 Good luck with your writing!

  11. Vanessa Di Gregorio October 18, 2010 at 10:51 AM #

    Love this post Sarah!! I agree – research is SO important!! It adds so much believability to a story, even if it is set in a totally fictional world!

    • Sarah J. Maas October 18, 2010 at 3:58 PM #

      Thank youuuuuu!! ❤ ❤

  12. kaemccrae October 18, 2010 at 11:37 AM #

    Finally! Someone else who’s as much of a research ho as me.
    When I’m designing a CONCEPT I have DOZENS of links to fall back on. And that’s before I even start writing! @.o

    And I also like that you did mention ‘inside’ research, too. I find that with a lot of writers I know, they don’t do a lot of research into their own world into how things GOT the way they are. They just take things that happen in our world and plop it right down into their own world, which is something I just cannot do no matter how hard I try; I need things to make absolute sense. To me, mostly, but hopefully that will transfer onto other people.

    Which is why I’m spending a few years, before I go on in my fantasy story, writing out historical scenes and timelines. It’s impossible to concretely know everything about your story, but I’m darn well going to try!

    • Sarah J. Maas October 18, 2010 at 4:01 PM #

      YAY for research hos! 😉

      To be honest, I think you don’t NEED to spend a few years researching before you begin writing. You could definitely write the story, then do more research during revisions. Writing the story first might also help to pinpoint where/what you need to research, too! For me, researching is more about ME getting a better understanding of the way things work–a lot of the time, the stuff I research doesn’t directly go into the story.

      BUT good for you for being so hardcore about research! I bet when you do write the story, all of that research will be a HUGE help! 🙂

      • Kerrie October 19, 2010 at 12:41 AM #

        I did try writing without the backstory, got about 40k in, but the way my head works, I just couldn’t keep going bling. Dx I want the mythology and history to back up the plot, and I figure I might as well flesh it out as well as I can now. And yeah – most of the stuff I’m writing right now won’t go into the story as more than a brief mention in some dialogue.

        So in a way, it kind of is a take two kind of thing. : ) And I’m definitely putting other projects on the main burner while this one warms up.

        My favourite piece of research, however, was how impossible it was to find out exactly what the history of undergarments was…
        Took me weeks, that one.

  13. Kat Zhang October 18, 2010 at 12:39 PM #

    Really fabulous post, Sarah 🙂 As writers, we have the world’s weirdest search histories, don’t we? I’d hate to ever be under police investigation…they’d probably try to convict me based on the things I look up alone…

    • Sarah J. Maas October 18, 2010 at 4:02 PM #

      Thank you!

      AND OMG YES. I would be totally convicted if my search history was used in a criminal investigation. lol…Yikes.

  14. Jess October 18, 2010 at 2:05 PM #

    Kat, definitely.

    I get lost in cool topics all the time, but when I have to purposely research something I buck. Go figure. Still that means I have a ton of foundational knowledge when I start most projects because I’m a trivia nerd, especially geeky historical facts, and will just need to double check something, or am quick to think of the things I don’t know/will need to look up. Just looking something up doesn’t intimidate me, but the idea of full-out research does. :shrug:

    I love these best: “When did people stop wearing ugly nightclothes and start wearing sexy things? … When were fluffy pillows invented?”

    • Sarah J. Maas October 18, 2010 at 4:04 PM #

      Hahaha, there are few things more unappealing than a really hot dude wearing a nightgown….In fact, I think the dudes in QOG just sleep in the nude. 😛

  15. tymcon October 18, 2010 at 5:24 PM #

    I think magic would be the most important to try to research. You’ll have to make it somehow grounded in reality. Take throwing a fireball as an example. First of all how would your hands be protected? And how far can you actually throw somethign that’s insubstansial? And if it was propelled like a bullet, how much of a recoil would there be? Last thing. IF your firing a rifle how would you hold the gun?
    You have to actually put the (back of the gun. Can’t remember what it’s called) in right against your body or it will break your shoulder. Or something. It’ll break something:P
    The best case of magic that relied on physics is the Black Prism.

    If there’s sword fights how woudl they move? WOuld they do a matrix? Or would it ba very Rob Roy-ish? And how exactly does it feel to get stabbed in the stomach/ stab someone in the stomach? Yeah, I’m not sayign to be a method writer in that case…

    Great post. It’s very important to groudn fantasy in realism. Since it’s set in another universe you have to get the reader to relate. That’s the reason I couldn’t read Terry Pratchett. I just couldn’t imagine a world on an elephant on aturtel (shrugs). I know it was a thign on belief, but still.

    • Sarah J. Maas October 20, 2010 at 2:00 PM #

      Those are all great points (about magic being grounded in reality)! I think building a magic system is one of the hardest things I’ve had to do as a writer because it actually needs RULES and limitations and stuff…It kinda makes my head hurt.

  16. amiekaufman October 19, 2010 at 9:23 AM #

    Okay, if you didn’t get yourself on a watchlist or two researching some of that killing people business, you’ve got to ask yourself what it takes!

    One of the many things I like about researching (I’m a history major, so it’s a long list) is that apart from giving your work that verisimilitude, it suggests whole new possibilities. Research make up, learn about the impact of lead based make up, decide a particular character should have a make up habit and be going slightly mad. What does she do next?

    • Sarah J. Maas October 20, 2010 at 1:59 PM #

      Haha, i know, right?! I feel like somewhere, in some bunker beneath the ground, some government agent is monitoring my internet activity. 😛

      LOL I love the idea of a character going insane from lead-based makeup! Haha, that is fantastic. And horrifying.

  17. Chantal October 19, 2010 at 11:50 AM #

    Hehe great post 🙂 Research really does add that little extra level of detail and helps me personally get more absorbed into the fantasy world. It’s also a treat for people who do know a lot about the history of certain things to read it in a book and know that the author has taken the time to look that up haha

  18. Rika Ashton October 19, 2010 at 8:18 PM #

    Totally true. Since I write both fantasy and historicals, I know how much research is involved and sometimes, what you think will be a quick background check turns into a scavenger hunt. There’s so much contradicting information on the net, especially on some of the lore and mythology I have to look up. But when I first started writing I sorely underestimated the need for research and didn’t even think about it. Guess I figured I would pretty much make it up as I go – wow, how wrong was I?! Lesson learned.

    • Sarah J. Maas October 20, 2010 at 1:57 PM #

      YES! Mythology is often a pain to research, because there is 1) so much junk out there and 2) so many conflicting theories and collections of it. I’ve debated getting a JSTOR account, just to use their high-quality/legit resources.

      • Rika Ashton October 20, 2010 at 9:09 PM #

        Luckily, my university allows us to access JSTOR and a bunch of other online research sources for free. But honestly, I found books more helpful than the online stuff. Not only was it way more exciting signing out the various encyclopedias, so I could flip through them at night by candlelight pretending to be a sorceress looking up spells (I’m such a dork), but most of the JSTOR articles were essays that were extremely boring.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: