I’m a pretty big believer in research.
My favorite fiction writers—currently I’m into the scribblings of Douglas Preston & Lincoln Child—are usually good about doing their homework, and it shows in their work. Details and some healthy realism, even in fantasy, spin a web that can ensnare the unsuspecting reader … and once you’ve got them it’s too late.
My little source bookshelf is currently overburdened with reference material, and I’m adding more all the time. Some material has proved elusive, but there are many books about fantasy topics—medieval clothing, castles, etc. All grain for the mill. Most fantasy RPGs are set in a semi-medieval world, so one must pick and choose information, but there is still plenty to be had. Raiding the Barnes & Noble Sale Annex for large picture books on different cultures has become a regular pastime for me.
Often the little details aren’t individually noticeable, but I like to think that together they blend and make for a good final product. My Goodman Games adventure The Scaly God, for instance, incorporated a lot of weird research: research on lizards for the troglodytes, hours of research on caves and natural cavern formations, and castle research including Roman mountainside fortifications. I also studied Gygax’s Giant series (G2 and G3 specifically) in an attempt to give the third level cave layout an “old school” sense of flow.
Again, sometimes you must know when to “push the rules” a bit; real caves are often extremely tight and narrow to the point of claustrophobia—I choose the larger scale tunnels, but I did retain some natural formations and details.
Real life experiences, as I’ve mentioned previously in this blog, also shape my work heavily. I’ve walked through a good number of European medieval-age structures, and a summer spend studying abroad allowed me first-hand visits to Stonehenge and Warwick Castle. Later ramblings got me to Cardiff Castle in Wales and Urquhart Castle at Loch Ness. (And no, I didn’t see Nessie, but I was so knackered by the time I reached the loch that I was half-asleep on the boat! Sadly, Nessie would have had to bit my rump for me to take notice at that point.)
Whitefang Stronghold has a goodly share of those trips in it; I mentally threw several structures into the blender and liked what emerged. (None the Wiser, whose awesome and inspiring work I mention here, did note my lack of proper ceiling support or spiral stair construction in places—I guess engineering isn’t my strong suit! I did find his observation about having arrowslits on a staircase privately ironic—he is totally right, having them there really doesn’t make much sense, yet I put them there after, you guessed it, seeing similarly placed arrowloops in an Italian fortification!) One maze-like section of the third level caves was even inspired by a childhood memory of exploring Injun's Joe's Cave on Disneyland's Tom Sawyer Island, of all places!
For me, part of doing the research is that it makes me believe in what I'm writing, and that in turn makes me more passionate about what I'm writing.
Does this research and resulting mental mishmash ultimately bleed into my final product enough to make a real difference? I like to think so.
So … ready to write? Try hitting the books first.