I’ve touched on this subject before, but in retrospect I’m not sure I explained myself very well. So here we are again, as I try to tell a bunch of people who really want to write a thing that they need to look stuff up first. After all, what we all got into creative writing for was to replicate our term papers, wasn’t it?
I’m sorry to be the creaky professor on your shoulder again, but I fear I must insist. I don’t care what you’re writing, you need to now about more than just how to write. There’s no topic too mundane, no field of endeavor too specific to be of use to you. Writing works through style, but without ideas behind it the most flowing eloquence of your heart carries no weight. There’s no sane reason to limit yourself only to your own knowledge when we have this miraculous digi-bank of facts, musings and mad rants to draw on. You don’t even have to use half the ideas you find in the direct sense, you just need them to help get your brain tumbling down the right paths.I shouldn’t have to tell you this, and in fact I suspect you’re already aware of it on some level. The problem with only studying things you’re interested in is that you can only ever write characters who know the same information as you or less.
Now, my first example will be swords because of course it will (background image? background image.) I’m in an awkward position here since swords have always fascinated me, but I can see pretty clearly that most authors don’t put in the time to understand them. So even though my point is to research outside your comfort zone, I’m opening with examples from mine because I know it’s not yours. (Blech, what a scrawl of explanation)
I shouldn’t have to make you interested in swords if you’re a Fantasy writer. Most Fantasy writers find swords at least somewhat interesting or they wouldn’t be Fantasy writers. So, if you’re such a person (read: conveniently suited to my current point) when was the last time you sat down to research swords, hm? Do you spend a reasonable amount of time ogling (and I mean ogling) historical models, considering the benefits of different blade and edge geometry, different handle construction, through-temper versus differential, laminate versus monosteel construction and so on? Some things you’ll pick up on immediately: historical swords are never more than 8 pounds, assuming a massive six-footer made for the manliest of manly men. Few were razor sharp, but all intended for combat use were “sword” sharp and many were paper-cutting sharp. A well-designed sword is fairly agile even at six feet long, unless you’re totally out of shape. Genre-wise, here’s the big one: a disproportionate number of fantasy swords are completely over-designed, covered in extraneous spikes and serrations and weirdly placed cords with oversize blades. This desperate flail for an “original” design makes most indistinguishable from each other. A sensible sword is actually the odd one out.
A slightly broader historical note: European fighting styles are often depicted as clumsy and inelegant. If you’re Caucasian, stop shaming your ancestors. If not, please stop slandering us as lumbering brutes (the genocide habit is still your best angle of attack). European longsword fighting, at its zenith, was among the most refined and effective martial traditions the world has ever known. There’s another one for you. Look up footage of HEMA practitioners going through the movements of Liechtenauer’s Zornhau (literally, “wrath hew”), especially the Five Master Cuts. I’ve learned all these things with a total of perhaps two hours on Google. I appreciate Fantasy for diverging from reality in ways that are new or interesting. To be perfectly honest, I like that Fantasy can make things cooler. I bring these things up because a disproportionate number of novels have made European-based weapons and armor out to be pitiful, when history tells us precisely the opposite.
I could keep going in that vein, but I’m not making my point yet. Historical European warfare happens to be one of my fascinations as an Aspergian. Using my fascinations as an example is fun, but not particularly pertinent to my original statement. So here’s a different tack based on some things I picked up from fellow reenactors: most mercenary units in the Renaissance (here, the 1500s) had a vast array of people called “camp followers” to help them run smoothly. These ranged from craftsmen of various sorts who tagged along to, most commonly, women. While usually referred to as wives, many camp followers were, in fact, prostitutes paid by individual mercenaries to follow them on campaign. Aside from the *cough* usual things, these women actually played a crucial role in the function of the unit.
Let’s say I’ve been at drills all day with the rest of my company. We march back and forth under a scorching summer sun in full combat gear. No matter how disciplined we are, most of us will be staggering by the time we get back to our tents. If I don’t have a camp follower of my own, I have to prepare my own meals in this state of total physical and mental exhaustion. Whatever I throw together won’t be particularly appealing because I don’t have the energy for that. If I do have a camp follower, my food will be prepared already and I can set to eating as soon as I’ve shrugged off whatever armor I might be able to afford. It’s one thing to say that soldiers of the time had lives outside warfare, but another to know about the people who made that possible.
All this said, if you’re going to study only one thing to write genre fiction, it should be anthropology. Seems like an odd pick, doesn’t it? What anthropology teaches you, however, ranges from the origins of modern human anatomy (useful if you’re going to make up your own races) and by extension a large array of biological factors that determine the course of evolution. That’s physical anthropology. Cultural anthropology is even more useful. If, like me, you live in the United States or another “first-world” country with a vaguely comparable level of cultural influence (Rammstein’s “Amerika” isn’t just satirizing Americans, remember that), you need cultural anthropology to make you understand that your worldview is not immutable.
Other humans don’t necessarily see things the way you do. There are cultures that believe sex has nothing to do with reproduction, or that certain diseases are just side-effects of puberty. There are cultures where complimenting someone on a contribution is taboo because they’ll get an ego and cause strife in the community. Many of these things sound absurd even after you’ve heard the explanation, but if your reaction is one of violent rejection rather than simple confusion, that shows you need to open your mind further before you start writing.
In truth there is no one genre to study. Anthropology has been the most generally useful to me, but you need a surface understanding of just about every field before you’ll be even close to ready. You can’t design new buildings effectively without knowing the principles behind the ones we have. If you don’t know basic material science, you’ll have no way to make your mystic hyper-steel stand out from the past thousand iterations. Without understanding Earth, you can’t effectively alter its patterns to create believable alien worlds. Does this sound extreme? Perhaps. But you studied many of these things from the time you could read. You’ll often be surprised by the things you’ve forgotten you remember. That is, information lying dormant in parts of your brain so dimmed by disuse you have to burn something new into them before the old comes to light. That’s a concept I picked up from psychology, by the way. My painfully trite final guideline, then: learn to be fascinated by learning. Push yourself to perk up when new ideas are presented, and to analyze them as closely as possible before moving on.
This doesn’t even get in the way of your writing. Writing is no more than sending ideas with matter rather than energy. When you read the ideas of others, you don’t just pick up their ideas but the way they came through. Whenever you read, you’re not just learning new facts but (on a subconscious level) a better understanding of writing.
If you can’t hold yourself awake long enough to read someone else’s writing, why would you ever expect them to stay up ’til the wee hours reading yours?