Wednesday, August 7, 2013

It's Fantasy. Why Do I Need To Research?

Author Kat Heckenbach writes fantasy. Like much of science fiction, it involves making up worlds, along with the environment and the creatures that inhabit it. Some might think there is no research involved in writing fantasy. Kat relates her experience. -- Sandy

Kat: I will be the first to admit I’m not crazy about research. I joke that one reason I write fantasy is so I don’t have to research—I can just make everything up! But of course it’s not quite that simple. Getting to make things up doesn’t mean I don’t have to know how things work.

The story world in my YA fantasy series Toch Island Chronicles is full of mythical flora and fauna. I wanted those species of plants and animals to be realistic, if not real. That meant researching plants that do exist to learn what types live in what climates. I didn’t want my unique oak trees in an environment where no oaks of any kind would grow. I wanted fictional plants to have qualities that make sense when it comes to their real-world counterpoints, too. What plants are used for healing? What kind of defense mechanisms do they have?

I also researched animals that I could alter in order to make a mysterious species. Again, that meant learning about habits and habitats of real animals. The environments they live in, their diet, the predators they face. What ability does a particular animal have that could be enhanced and made into a supernatural power?

I also spent a lot of time reading other fantasy novels. When it comes to mythological creatures, this can be invaluable. It’s not just about the actual historical lore—it’s also about other authors’ takes on that lore. You need to know what readers expect when reading fantasy, and get an idea of what you ought to make your own and what you ought to keep more traditional. (Yes, reading novels can count as research!)

I have a background in science, so I chose to follow a more scientific system.  Sure, with that background I had to research a little less, but I still wanted to make certain I understood things like “lift” (the way air flows to hold up an airplane) to create a realistic way an object could be levitated. And I found myself learning about combustion and light waves, and double-checking those laws of thermodynamics.

Ironically, the most surprising part of my research had nothing to do with creating fictional creatures. I never would have thought that writing fantasy would lead to me researching ancient Arabian architecture and, well, sheep shearing.

So no matter how much I’d have liked to avoid it, research became part of the creation of my totally made-up story world anyway. Fantasy writing without research is…a fantasy.

What is the most unusual thing you've researched for your novel?


Kat Heckenbach spent her childhood with pencil and sketchbook in hand, knowing she wanted to be an artist when she grew up—so naturally she graduated college with a degree in biology, went on to teach math, and now homeschools her two children while writing. Her fiction ranges from light-hearted fantasy to dark and disturbing, with multiple stories published online and in print. Her YA fantasy series includes Finding Angel and Seeing Unseen and is available in print and ebook. Enter her world at