Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Know What You Write: Research and Fantasy Literature

“Write what you know.” It’s one of the most-quoted pieces of writing advice, and, to my mind one of the worst. If everyone only wrote what they knew, the field of literature would be very small indeed. And boring.

But reversed – “know what you write” – the advice is much less troubling, and can be easily translated to something I do feel is excellent writing advice. Do your research.

In some contexts, this is obvious: writing nonfiction. Writing historical fiction. Writing mimetic fiction in which a character needs a specific skill set – a police procedural, for example. Even in science fiction, research is a normal part of the job – you have to know how the science works before you can break it, or extrapolate from it. But tell people that you’re off to research vampires for your novel, and you get some funny looks.

I mean, first of all, vampires are supernatural. And how can you research (with its implications of a search for facts) something that has no tangible truth? But are there really no truths about vampires? There are certainly collective assumptions about them – immortal, drink blood, aversion to stakes, sunlight, garlic, and religious symbols, sleep in coffins, can turn into bats, or mist, or wolves.  They have a fondness for perky blonde cheerleaders. Part of the hostile reaction to Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight series was that “everyone knows” vampires don’t sparkle. “Everyone knows” implies that the fantastic has truths of its own, and that writers who contradict those truths do so at their peril.

So how do you find those truths, and learn them well enough to write about them? First, don’t assume that just because something is fantastic in origin that no nonfiction exists about it. Historical accounts of events believed to be vampirism exist, as do accounts of events believed to be haunting, demonic possession, hostile witchcraft, and kidnapping by fairies. While I am not suggesting these accounts be read as the literal truth, they are valuable because they show the culture and system of beliefs that allowed these happenings to be given the names they were, and the commonalities of thought that categorized them. There were common beliefs about vampires even before Stoker wrote Dracula, and part of the reason that his vampires achieved the resonance that they did was that he was aware of these beliefs, and incorporated them in his writing – the vampire he made up had the qualities that people knew to be true about vampires.

Nearly every trope of the fantastic has its roots somewhere – in myth and legend if nowhere else. Reading back through a literary tradition is a wise thing to do before attempting to place yourself in it. Dragons need not hoard gold, nor unicorns prefer virgins, nor sharing a meal with the Queen of Fairy trap you under a hill for seven years, but a good writer will know the most common expectations before deciding to subvert them. Myths, fairy tales, and folklore all have extensive scholarly fields associated with them, and these are great places to find information that will make writing about the fantastic seem more real.  Without research, even of ghosties and ghoulies and things that go bump in a novel, a writer risks driving a stake into the heart of her own story.