There are a lot of rules for writing. One that I hear fairly often is write what you know. That’s fine if you’re writing adult contemporary about a penniless author. It’s less useful if your characters spend their days riding horses, practicing witchcraft, or getting into knife fights. I’m talking about fantasy, the genre where we get to make things up with very little reality required. It’s a genre built entirely around the idea of escapism. You can set your stories in spectacular worlds. Your character can tame dragons or fight monsters. You can do whatever they want.
Even works of fantasy, however, still benefit from some grounding in the real world. Otherwise readers may have trouble relating to the story and its characters. One way to achieve it, while still delivering a fantastical experience, is to create verisimilitude. This is a fancy word (which I can’t pronounce) for the feeling that something seems especially true or real. In simpler terms, it means writing about something in a way that persuades the reader you know your stuff.
In my first book, a portal fantasy to a secondary world, I made up a lot of things. Flora, fauna, countries, geography, you name it. I created a pristine world for modern characters to explore. Yet one of my earliest readers shared that some of the most compelling and vivid scenes from that book were when my characters were traveling through the woods. There’s a very simple and logical explanation for that: I spend a lot of time in the woods myself. I’m a bowhunter. Between September and January, I pretty much live in camo. So I know how to write about the woods in a way that rings true.
Most writers have real-world experience or knowledge that can inform their writing. Maybe you grew up on a farm and know about agriculture. Maybe you helped your dad fix up old cars. Hell, maybe you trained in martial arts and know how to subdue an opponent. Great writers lean in to their strengths, whether it’s Tolkien with linguistics or Rothfuss with music. Their deep and personal knowledge lends a convincing realism to those aspects of their stories.
There are so many aspects of fantasy worldbuilding that benefit from a well-informed author, from the obvious (horses, warfare, political structures, and world history) to the not-so-obvious (economics, sociology, religious fundamentalism, and even culinary science). In fact, there are probably too many relevant subjects for any one writer to be an expert in all of them. There are too many topics and not enough time. How do you balance research for writing with writing itself? When research is necessary, how to you even get started?
In this age of disinformation and misinformation, the best source of information is usually a real-world expert. Someone who has spent time studying or doing the thing beyond an amateur level. Unfortunately, sometimes experts are not easy to find. If you start asking people on the street if they know much about Medieval pole weapons or some pointers on practicing witchcraft, you’ll be greeted with odd looks. But these experts do exist. I know because I’ve spent the past few years recruiting them to come to my Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series.
When I speak to experts, I ask them to do two things. First, I want to know the common blunders or misconceptions related to their area of expertise – in other words, the most glaring errors that pervade books, television, and other media. The world is rife with misconceptions about things, and fantasy-adjacent topics get more than their fair share. Thanks to the Dunning Kruger effect – a cognitive bias in which people who know very little about a subject tend to overestimate their understanding of it – humans tend to be ignorant of their own incompetence. This leads to gross errors in mainstream media which are subsequently repeated in other mainstream media, simply because none of the creators were truly an expert. Avoiding these common mistakes is step one in the journey to perceived know-how.
The second thing I ask of my many expert contributors is whether there are nuanced bits of knowledge that I can sprinkle into my work to give the appearance of competence. In other words, I want them to teach me just enough to be dangerous. To convince the casual reader that hey, this author really knows what he’s writing about. This, truly, is the secret weapon of the informed author: a knowledge base about an in-depth topic that’s been curated by a real expert.
For example, I learned from a historian that one of the common causes of infant mortality in Victorian England was “teeth” – because it occurred at the teething stage of infancy – and many such deaths were likely accidental overdoses of laudanum, which was often applied to babies’ gums to sooth teething pains. I learned from a martial artist that a person with a gun needs twenty-one feet of separation from someone with a knife in order to shoot them before being stabbed. Thanks to some helpful horse experts, I also know that experienced riders guide their mounts’ movement by controlling the shoulders of the horse, not by turning its head.
These are all little details, but working them into the story adds verisimilitude. Realism in storytelling wins more trust from the reader. More trust means more leeway to write about things that are cool but have no basis whatsoever in reality, like magical swords or flying horses. So sure, write what you know. For the other things you write, find an expert. Learn enough to be dangerous.
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