Fact and Fiction: Understanding the place of research in genre fiction

I’m a sucker for a well-researched story. And not just the story/narrative itself, but the worldbuilding. In my experience with various writing communities (both online and off), there are some writers who opt to neglect research with the excuse that it’s just fiction. I have a different view on that.

Maybe it’s because of my science background (frankly, any background that requires extensive amounts of research will probably do the trick too). Maybe it’s because I really love history and politics and feel the need to be as accurate as possible. I’m not sure. But I do think research is critical to good worldbuilding, even if it’s fantastical. Genre fiction might not be as grounded as literary fiction, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be well thought-out.

In fact, I’d argue that researching genre fiction will actually benefit from this extra research. That sounds redundant, but I’ll explain what I mean.

I’m a skeptic. I struggle with suspending my disbelief. I can do it to an extent, but some things require more realism. And I don’t mean just within the physics or biology of a world. I can actually forgive the artistic license with those more often than not. My biggest struggles come down to politics and character interactions and cultures. How humans within a world interact, and how their actions have developed that world. Humans can be unpredictable, but we also have extensive records of billions of people’s lives or at least, how they were affected by other people’s actions. History is an unlimited resource, and I think that a lot of authors don’t utilize it well enough.

I recently took a fantasy literature class as an elective, and part of the required reading was Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. The book itself is a bit dense, but I do want to talk about why it was so effective in its worldbuilding, and that density really aided this.

For those of you who haven’t read it, the writing style is very similar to that of era it takes place in. It’s reminiscent (on purpose) of the late Enlightenment era and the turning point to the Romantic era. It places magic firmly within the natural sciences, something to be studied rather than created, according to the scholars of the time. There is an idea within this world, that magic should be studied not practised, just as scientists believed that the natural world was to be studied not created.

And going beyond the way that magic was treated in this world, the themes and characters echo the change that society took from the Enlightenment to the Romantics, from logic and reason (Mr. Norrell) to heart and emotion (Jonathan Strange). Going solely by the worldbuilding itself, it was firmly placed within the era it takes place in. Clarke’s research is evident throughout the novel, using many real events and accounts of the Napoleonic wars to further embellish the story.

Maybe the argument of “strong worldbuilding” is a bit vague, still. What does this research mean for a world that isn’t our own? After all, JS&MN took place in our world and Susanna Clarke was simply trying to place her own magic and characters into our history.

When I think of heavily-researched fantasy worlds, my first thought is the works of Guy Gavriel Kay. Kay’s writing, for those who aren’t familiar, takes places in a world similar to our own, but also different. It is, in many ways, an alternate history on an alternate Earth. And while his worlds are incredibly similar to our own, this concept of alternate history on an alternate Earth can easily be transferred over.

I’ll explain what I mean.

History is a detailed account of how humans problem solve. History is the story of how things came to be. When writing alternate worlds and creating new ones, oftentimes the best way to research how a government would be put together or how the people of a country gain their rights or even just how a culture comes to be is by looking at history. Taking elements of the real and understanding them. And I think that part is the most important here: research requires understanding. Simply learning about something and then hacking away at it isn’t going to create a detailed sculpture. You need to understand your medium and plan accordingly to create something thorough and realistic. The world is not without context after all.

Considering this is a topic that I think should get broken down into a few different parts, expect more on the matter. I’m planning to go into more depth about how research is important to certain aspects of writing and worldbuilding. Specifically, how fairy tale retellings should reflect the original history and culture of its origin, and also how history can be limiting to the extent of worldbuilding (specifically, I’ll be looking at the occult).

These are all going to fall into my Fact and Fiction series of posts about how fiction can benefit from history and how it shouldn’t be overlooked because understanding is how we make strong worlds and characters. Context creates strong worlds and characters and history provides this context. But sometimes we also need to understand this context, too.

Who’s the artist?

Magdalena Pagdowska is a long time favourite artist of mine. I find that her work encompasses the idea of using history (in this case art history) and adjusting it to reflect in fantasy very well. Her personal work explores the fantastical grounded in humanity, which is a theme that I find myself falling back into in my own writing. I could gush about it all day, but I suggest just checking out her gallery. Until then, since the piece was cut off by my theme, please behold all of Hope.


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