About eight years ago, I finally got serious about becoming a fantasy author. I established this website and, for lack of anything better to do with it, started blogging. At the time, I had few credentials as a fiction writer. However, I had hands-on knowledge of genetics because of my day job, as well as some experience with fantasy-adjacent subjects (archery and outdoor adventuring) thanks to my decades-long obsession with bowhunting. Yet there were many more topics relevant for SF/F writing, and I didn’t know more about them than the average layperson. I began recruiting experts, and so the Science in Sci-fi / Fact in Fantasy blog series was born.
After formatting and editing… *checks notes* … more than 170 guest posts across a wide range of subjects, I’ve come to believe that this ongoing series represents one of the best resources for SF/F writers anywhere. It’s enough to fill not one, but TWO books, the second of which was published today by Writer’s Digest Books. Putting the Fact in Fantasy collects essays from historians, linguists, martial artists, and other experts — 34 of them in total — to help fantasy writers create more realistic and compelling stories. Somehow I persuaded Scott Lynch, the NYT bestselling author of The Lies of Locke Lamora (and, in my opinion, one of the best world-builders in modern fantasy) to write the foreword. At the gentle suggestion of my editor, Joanna Ng at TarcherPerigee/PRH, I asked my friend Eric Primm to reprise his essay, “Research in Writing: How to Ask an Expert,” for the introduction.
Here are the major sections of the book, along with a few highlights of things I learned in each:
It Already Happened: History as Inspiration
- Female professions in the Middle Ages were far more diverse than I realized. As Tahereh Safavi writes, there’s historical evidence for women working as masons, carpenters, shipwrights, brewers, and my personal favorite, gravel diggers.
- From Hayley Stone, I learned that people in the American Old West were the original “pics or it didn’t happen” crowd: it was common practice to photograph dead outlaws (often propped against a wall) to convince people that they were dead.
- Filed under historically accurate ways to die are these actual causes of death listed in London’s bills of mortality in the 17th-19th centuries: “Gripping of the guts” (abdominal pains), “rising of the lights” (likely a lung infection), “Quinsy” (abscess on the tonsils), “Chincough” (probably whooping cough), and “Horseshoe head” (possibly infants with hydrocephalus).
Speak, Friend, and Enter: Languages & Culture
- From Marie Brennan, I learned that one basic distinction between languages is subject-verb-object. A native English (SVO) speaker translating something from another language (say, SOV) would probably read it out of order first, and then repeat it in natural SVO order.
- Languages, dialects, and accents are all different things, and Christina Dalcher has some great ideas for using all three in fantasy languages.
- From my friend Graeme Talboys I learned that while most archaeologists are generalists, there are numerous sub-specialties including underwater, industrial, and experimental archaeologists, as well as those specializing in ancient fauna (zooarchaeologists) and human remains (osteoarchaeologists).
How to Make It Up: World-building
- Olaseni Ajibade, while discussing architectural and waste management considerations for worldbuilding, pointed out that since preindustrial societies relied on animals for labor, the signs of that would pervade everything, especially settlements.
- Thanks to A.R. Lucas, I’m now thinking about my characters and their economic needs in terms of Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs.
- JRH Lawless reminded me that some of the most compelling story plots — such as Robin Hood and (American) Westerns — are effectively the results of a breakdown in the legal system.
Weapons and Warfare: When In Doubt, Add These
- If you think the answer to any knife fight is to bring a gun, make sure you also bring twenty-one feet of separation. According to Eric Primm, that’s the minimum distance required for someone to draw and shoot a knife-wielding opponent without getting stabbed.
- It’s still my favorite bit of wisdom from Michael Mammay that soldiers break everything. “If you leave ten soldiers in a room with an anvil and come back in fifteen minutes, it will either be missing or broken.”
- Thanks to Jen Finelli, I now have a much more visceral mental picture of what it feels like to be stabbed in the chest (and slowly dying from it).
You Don’t Know Horses, But We Do
- From Amy Perkins-McKenna, I learned a long time ago that the personality and fitness of a horse dictates how far they will travel. And the fitness of the rider is important, too.
- Matching horses to their climate and purposes is easy to get wrong. Thanks to Rachel Annelise Chaney, I know that the best horse for a long-endurance trip through a dry location is a small, lean, desert breed like an Arabian.
- Thanks to Debby Lush, I know that dominant horses will try to stay in the center of the herd, where they’re less likely to be attacked by a predator.
So You’re Going On An Adventure
- Safety tip: a hiker’s pack should weigh no more than 33% of their body weight, according to Victoria Sandbrook. Even packs weighing 20 pounds will take some getting used to.
- Dehydration is a serious danger, not just for adventures in deserts but also mountains and areas of high elevation. In such environments, plan for at least two gallons per person per day. Eating cactus to survive is a popular myth: most are very acidic and will make you even sicker.
- Thanks to Cheyenne Campbell, I’m aware that a realistic detail for wooden prison doors is graffiti made by the imprisoned. Now there’s a haunting detail for any story.
In Conclusion: Expert Advice Beats Googling It
As we all know, the internet is rife with misinformation and disinformation. Although Google, Wikipedia, and other resources can be useful tools, there’s no substitute to getting advice from a real-world expert. Putting the Fact in Fantasy collects the advice from more than thirty such experts, who will teach you enough about their topic areas to write convincing stories. If this sounds like it would be useful to you, I hope you’ll check the book out. Should you need more convincing, here are some snippets from advance reviews:
“These snappy essays were excellent; well-written and with lots of humor. The authors’ enthusiasm comes through.”
“I would highly recommend this book to all fiction writers as an essential guide to help them enhance their writing and world-building.”
“I learned that almost everything I thought I knew about horses was wrong! I can now properly describe a horse’s height, coloring, and gaits without sounding like an amateur.”
“I learned so much, and have not shut up about all the random things in the last week. Would recommend to any and all fiction writers, not just fantasy!”
“Amongst the dull stacks of books about writing (I have read many), this book is a bonfire-bright beacon of useful and exciting tools to help any writer craft great fiction and fantasy.”
The book is called Putting the Fact in Fantasy. Here’s where to find it.
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