Research and Fantasy: A Match Made in Heaven or Hell?


Last Saturday I met up with Kate and we talked about an anthology project we’re both working on. I also happened to finish an incredible historical fiction novel about the ancient poet Sappho that night. A passing comment from Kate and a note written in the author’s afterword made me quirk my head cat-style.


Kate (paraphrased): “I’m glad I write fantasy so I can just make it up.”

Erica Jong: “The more I read, the more I realized that there were remarkably few agreed-upon facts about Sappho. For a historian, this is an obstacle; for a novelist, it may be a blessing.”*

Among my writer friends, I’m notorious for the amount of research I do for my stories. I like the platform facts give me because I can either build upon their foundation or dive right off. When I’m stuck, research into aspects of my fiction will give me an idea as to which path I should travel. Research gives me options I may not have been previously aware of. It helps that I love learning. It helps that I have a vast number of interests.

Still, their comments beg the question:

Do you really need to do research if you’re exploring a world or person you’re largely fabricating?

My answer: yes. The answer: it’s up to you as writer.

Going back to Jong’s novel, she took the few facts she had–Sappho’s fragments and the translations of those fragments across history, and the research she did about the Greece of 2600 years ago–and created a memorable character with a fantastic narrative. The research was as integral as the fictitious elements.

Now, I don’t write historical fiction; I write dark urban fantasy. However, the two are sisters in that they require facts to tie in the fantastic. My stories are largely based in a version of the real world, so I have to know how it works. Plain and simple.

I’ve written story notes for some high fantasy works I have in the back of my mind. The amount of agricultural and feudal knowledge I’m going to need for them is astounding. I could make it all up, I could create systems of rule and life that work for my world. But I’m not going to. One, I would grow bored trying to figure it all out, I’d much rather read about it and integrate what I need. Two, as someone unable to write full time, my actual writing time is precious. I’m not wasting it.

That’s my cursory summation of my answer. I’m all for researching the things I don’t want to, or really can’t, make up. Research and fantasy are a match made in heaven as far as I’m concerned. What do you think?



*Jong, Erica. Sappho’s Leap. “Author’s Afterword.” W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., New York, NY, 2003. 294.

**Featured image source.


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