Thursday, May 27, 2010

Researching your novel

One thing that some Fantasy and Science Fiction writers (and authors) fail to realize is that research should be an important part of your world building process. It is very easy to fall to the temptation of just writing whatever you want when you are working on a F/SF novel.

This should not be the case.

I have been working on a young adult novel project lately. This has some fantastical elements - ghosts, legends, myths and the kin. But, in the end, it really is about a modern girl who gets to experience some pretty fantastic things. Fantasy? In a way.

Factual? As factual as any myth or legend can be.

Researched? You bet.

But, as I have been doing the research for this project, I realized something. No matter how much I would just jump in and write a fantasy novel, I would be doing research. However, not as much research as I should have been doing.

What things should I have researched for my fantasy novel projects? Well, I will provide you a list and my reasoning. Writing this young adult, I feel, has greatly improved my ability to see a plot line and condense it into something manageable. I will go into this a little later, as there is a research element involved here as well.

1: Basic sciences.

Magic, as we all know, is magical! It is not science. However, one thing should remain the same, even if you use magic in your world. This law of science should still apply. You suspend this, and you break your concept. Suspending disbelief -- or the act of convincing your reader that this could actually happen -- is vital if you want your fantasy novel to succeed. You can do this by looking at every action taken with magic and applying a basic physics law to it.

"Every action has an equal and opposite reaction."

If you throw a fireball, there will be the same force of the fireball expanding from the explosive point. In exchange, there should be a similar -- equivalent -- cost to the user. If you have a character that can just throw around massively damaging fireballs with no consequence and no reaction, belief in the sciences of the real world will not be suspended.

If you use fire a lot, research fire. This can include materials that burn best, and materials that do not burn at all. If throwing a fireball means that your character gets hit with the backlash, how can the character best protect themselves?

Exhaustion, both physical and mental, are the standard equal and opposite reaction of magic. Someone casts a fireball, and they become tired. If they become too tired, they risk death.

In the case of a cannon, the cannon recoils. But, hey, it is magic. You can bend the rules a little. But, you should always have this little rule in the back of your mind.

I would also keep the one about "What goes up must come down" firmly in mind. Especially if you have a character prone to tripping up the stairs.

2: Location, Location, Location.

Many people have it set in their minds that a F/SF novel must take place in many different locations. In some cases, this is true. In others, it is not. However, one thing does tend to be clear: The higher the number of locations pursued in a novel, the more convoluted the plot tends to become. Do not add locations just for the sake of adding locations. More locations does not give your novel an epic feel. Your writing, your style, and your story give your novel an epic feel.

When you research locations for a SF/F novel, there will be a lot of creation. The world should be yours. However, in order to suspend disbelief (here we go again...) you need to make your locations at least somewhat realistic. For this reason, I have taken to researching the equivalent on earth. Then, I see what is nearby.

Why do large cities tend to be where they are? Water supplies. Most large cities are near some form of major water supply. My home is actually on an Island. Many people I have spoken with did not realize that Montreal is in fact an island, but sure enough... there is water on all sides. Lots and lots of water. (For those who are not familiar with Montreal, it is in the middle of the St Lawrence river in Quebec... directly north of New York State.)

New York City? It has the Ocean. Baltimore? Chesapeake Bay. Miami? Ocean. Los Angeles, San Fran... Oceans, rivers and Lakes all fairly close. Ottawa? Has a river. Toronto has a lake. Chicago, Milwaukee both have a lake. Detroit likes those lakes, too. London has the ocean...

I'm sure you are getting the idea. Pay attention to the details of your location. This is particularly true of Fantasy novels. Your people will not live in a region where they can not get their basic needs: Food, Water and Shelter. They can make their own shelter, but they are in a lot of trouble if they cannot get food or water. Sure, that barren wasteland may seem like an awesome place to put a city, but large numbers of people will not be able to reside there. Not without a heck of a lot of explanation.

3: Resources

Civilized lands need resources for trade or for crafting. The resources available are determined by your location. When you research location types, do not forget to research valuable resources. You may not mention them in your novel, but these factors need to be kicking around in the back of your mind. This is an important part of what makes your world function.

4: Politics and Religion

Both of these are something that many are advised not to talk about in polite company. They can break friendships (and couples) about as fast as a penny falling to the floor from the counter. That said, these are often driving forces behind many plots. Making up your own politics and religion is great! But, you better do your research and see just how politics and religion can change a nation -- for better or for worse. With so many politicians around the world -- professional and the type who sit on their couches and comment on it -- you need to have a good idea of what actually is going on. Hitting the history books may be wise.

There are so many more things that you can research to make a SF/F novel happen. That said, it is important that you do not lose focus on the most important thing:

Your story needs a plot. It is not a story without a plot.

A plot has a beginning, a middle and an end. It is really just a big problem that needs solved. The resolution of the problem is the climax, and the stuff after that is just wrapping up the details.

You may love to write about a character, but your character needs to serve an important role to your plot.

Often, the most simple of plots are the most enjoyable to read. The more plots, the harder it is to follow.

A few examples of simplistic plots include Twilight and Harry Potter.

I will use Harry Potter in this case, as most people have had long exposure to it.. that, plus I have not read Twilight. I might read it in the future, but we will see.

Harry potter, through all of the books, has one main plot. This is the conflict between Harry + Voldemort. There are many subsequent plot lines, but all of them actually contribute, in one way or another, to the final showdown between Harry + Voldemort.

This is very important, people. Pay attention.

Every subsequent plot, in some way or another, contribute to the final showdown between Harry + Voldemort.

Your novel needs to be the same way. Every scene, every action and every dialog somehow needs to link to your main plot line.

This will really make your life a lot easier. It will also eliminate many plot holes. Easy to fix a problem when it doesn't exist in your book. (They will exist... but they will be much more minor than if you're flying off the cuff without your primary plot.)

I will leave you to chew on that a while on your own.

Good luck!

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