Today I am pleased to welcome Cinda Williams Chima, author of young adult fantasy. She is currently working on the Seven Realms series, which has two books out of a planned four published. The Demon King is available in paperback, and The Exiled Queen was recently released in hardcover. She has also written three books in the Heir series (The Warrior Heir, The Wizard Heir, and The Dragon Heir), a young adult contemporary fantasy.
A Fantasy Writer’s Research Notebook
One thing about writing fiction—people assume that it’s easy because you just “make stuff up.” We’re always being dissed by the nonfiction folk, who relish telling us how many years of research went into their projects before they even began to write.
“Oh, yes,” they say, “I spent five years in Paris researching my French bread picture book.” Or, “I didn’t think I could write authentically about corals without obtaining my open water SCUBA certification.”
Well, I’m here to tell you that novelists—even fantasy novelists—actually do quite a lot of research. Yes, we do. If we don’t, we’re the ones who get the emails.
My Heir Chronicles series is set mostly in Ohio, where I live, with a few scenes that take place in the UK. Easy, right?
I set most of the action in two fictional places: Trinity, OH, a small college town on Lake Erie, and Coalton County, a fictional place in Appalachian Ohio. Trinity is loosely based on Oberlin, and Coalton County on Jackson and Scioto Counties, where my mother’s family is from. I didn’t use the real places because I didn’t want anybody emailing me and saying, “There’s no Bluebird Café in Oberlin.” Anyway, I wanted to put my town on Lake Erie, because I like a water view. It’s in a kind of nonspecific location along the shore west of Cleveland and east of Toledo.
Although my characters lived in Ohio, they needed a magical language. I’m no Tolkien, who started with language and moved on to story. The magical guilds have roots in the War of the Roses in England, so I went back to Old English for many of my magical terms. There are Old English-English dictionaries online that I used as sources. You can find many of the magical terms used in the books on my website here.
In The Wizard Heir, the book opens in a club in Toronto, so I spent time online researching the club scene there. I also looked into the differences between Canadian English and U.S. English, since my viewpoint character was born and raised in Canada. For instance, Canadians say carpark instead of parking lot, and washroom instead of restroom.
My Seven Realms series is high fantasy, set in a mythical medieval world. That requires a different kind of research.
One of the viewpoint characters is a street thief, Han Alister. Over the course of the four novels, Han transitions into someone who can operate successfully at court. So I had to give him a street slang pattern of speech that could change over time.
Much of Han’s colorful language is drawn from dictionaries of British thieves’ cant or slang from the 18th century. I’m in the process of developing a thieves’ slang dictionary for my website.
Nothing throws a reader out of a story like stumbling across factual errors. My characters do a lot of traveling by horseback. I’m not a horse person, so I had to study up on such issues as how far a horse and rider can travel in a day. I also had a friend who owns horses review the equestrian parts.
Han Alister collects herbs and medicinals in the wild and sells them at the market to supplement his income. I researched medicinal herbs and flora he might encounter in the mountains. Of course, some of it, I just made up. Like Deathmaster mushrooms, and two-step lilies, so poisonous that you only go two steps before you die.
Another viewpoint character, Princess Raisa ana’Marianna, lives in a castle. I studied castle architecture, terminology, and details about castle life, finding answers to such questions as, What do they call those toothlike projections that top castle walls (crenelations) and Where did they go to the bathroom in a castle (the garderobe, which dumps into the moat.)
Here are some other questions I’ve had to find answers to:
- How does a catapult work? How far can it sling a projectile?
- Does a crossbow make a sound? If so, what does it sound like? How do you load a crossbow, anyway?
- What kind of food might be served in medieval taverns? What about drink?
- How does a longbow work and how do you take care of one?
- Where might you change trains in the north of England? (Carlisle.) What does Carlisle look like?
- What are some street-fighting techniques that a small person can use against a larger, more powerful opponent?
- Where would you stab a person in order to inflict a mortal wound?
- How big are the salt mines under Lake Erie? Could you hide the population of a small town in there?
All I have to say is, “Thank God for the Internet.” In truth, I actually enjoy research, sometimes to the point that I’m actually tempted to try nonfiction.
But I just lie down until that feeling goes away.
The Demon King is now available in paperback, and The Exiled Queen released September 28. There will be four books in the Seven Realms series, followed by two more Heir books.
Excerpts from each of my books are available on my website, www.cindachima.com. Help for writers can be found under Tips for Writers, including a document called, “Getting Started in Writing for Teens.”
I blog at http://cindachima.blogspot.com/, where you’ll find rants, posts on the craft of writing, and news about me and my books.