Fantasy Versus Reality

The Author and his Editor
The Author and his Editor

A lot of you know that I’m three quarters finished the first draft of the first book in a Fantasy Trilogy. I’ve been stuck in the same place for three weeks now. Writer’s Block? Nope. Research!

Fantasy And Reality

All fantasy is based on reality. The most famous of all Fantasy Trilogies, the Lord of the Rings, is based on J. R. R. Tolkien‘s studies of myths and legends, and of linguistics. Some specific scenes are drawn from direct knowledge. A close friend of his was the first archaeologist to unearth an Anglo-Saxon hall in the early twentieth century (this was mentioned in the Time Team episode where they uncovered a simalar Anglo Saxon hall). Theoden’s Hall in Rohen is based on what was learned by Tolkien from his friend’s dig.

Many settings in Lord of the Rings are based on places that Tolkien knew, and knew well. Tolkien had an enormous advantage over us North American fantasy writers. He lived in a landscape where there were many buildings that were 500 or 1000 years old that were still in daily use. He could see history from a persepctive that a Canadian or an American just simply can’t (though television does help).

Another excellent example is Lewis Carroll. Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland is a twisted example of our own world. It really is our world, viewed ‘Through the Looking Glass’ with a slightly skewed logic that makes it delightful for children of all ages. One of my great joys as a young father was reading Alice to my children.

But take a good, close look at Alice, and Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There. Without the real world, and a fine understanding of it, neither would work at all. In fact Lewis Carroll was fascinated by mathematics. If you visit his Project Gutenberg page you will find a book titled Symbolic Logic. Hardly the sort of thing most people associate with Fantasy…

How about Lois McMaster Bujold‘s wonderful Chalion series, which is set in an incredibly detailed world. It’s so incredibly detailed because Lois did her research. Chalion isn’t pre-Christian re-conquest Spain, but she mined that time period for much of her background, mixed in other cultural pieces, and came up with three books that I regard as wonderful works of art.

So Why Am I Doing Research?

Simple. When i start writing something, I usually start from a fragment of a scene. In this case a painting done by a local artist and musician caught my attention. It started me thinking. The painting showed a scene. A stone circle. That’s all.

It wouldn’t leave my head. So for NANOWRIMO one year I decided to use it. Got off to a good start, and then got hung up. Not writer’s block. Problem was, I didn’t know what I was doing. That was five years ago.

Writing isn’t as simple as sitting down at a computer and typing. It involves a lot of planning, research, organization, and for me, finding a comfortable spot where my body won’t scream at me. I had a good idea developed from the original vision, but I hadn’t fleshed it out. I was missing a lot of details. I spent a couple of fruitless years banging my head against a wall, then broke down and took a night school writing course. Patty (our teacher) taught me a lot. Not quite enough, but enough to get me writing again.

But I was still stuck on this story, which I really wanted to finish. The main character was literally banging on the inside of my head demanding to be let out.

In desperation I asked family friend Shirley Meier (click here to see her latest book on Amazon) to take a look at what I’d written. Shirley was a founding member of the Bunch of Seven writers group, and has a lot of experience in critiquing other writer’s works. Rather than telling me what I’d done wrong, she asked me a whole bunch of questions, one of which inadvertently gave my amnesiac main character his name, and pointed me in the right direction.

I spent most of the next year working on filling in the blanks that Shirley’s questions had raised, and there were some damned thorny ones too. I’m quite certain that she still doesn’t realize exactly how nasty some of the implications were. After all, it wasn’t HER universe.

I worked on it in fits and starts. The main character, Bellator, remained fairly constant, as did his roll. The main plot didn’t change in the slightest. The background however kept growing, and changing. If I made one assumption, it would impact on a dozen other things.

The other major characters became problems in their own rights. Each wanted to do their own thing, and for perfectly valid reasons. I often had to go back and look at the choices the characters were making from socio-economic reasons. Did they make sense for the social standing of the character in question, or was I inadvertently mixing in twenty-first thinking?

Effectively to write the novel I had to develop a split personality. One to handle daily life, and one to write. This has not made me easy to live with.

I also had to develop multiple databases, for plots, characters, societies, countries, cities, social classes within societies, religions, gods (believe me, gods do not necessarily match up with the religious structures that supposedly worship them), flora, fauna, geography, technology, legal systems (which while part of society sometimes work separately), the various military organizations, magic, magic’s impact on society, the impact of religious magic on society (but is it magic if it’s powered by faith?), and a host of other things.

About three weeks ago I spotted a gaping hole in part of the background. I won’t say which part. If you read the books, I’ll leave you the fun of trying to spot it. But I had missed something major, and it impacted heavily on three of the sub-plots. I had no choice, I had to stop writing at that point, until I’d filled in the details.

Three works worth of online research. A twenty pound shipment of books from Amazon. And now I’ve got what I need to continue writing.

Luckily none of this impacts the chapters that are already written. It will however make future chapters quite a bit more exciting šŸ™‚

The first draft of Chapters one to Ten are available for anyone to read on Weblit Canada. The title is provisional. Just warning you. I’ve got this sudden urge to change it…

Oh, and if you meet anyone who tells you that writing Fantasy is easy because you just make everything up – please tell them that I said that they are an idiot, and I’ll happily say it to their face.


Wayne Borean

Sunday April 10, 2011



6 thoughts on “Fantasy Versus Reality

  1. It’s only bad fantasy that’s easy to write.

    One reason I read little to no fantasy these days is that there is so much bad fantasy written by lazy writers. (One reason I began looking critically at the publishing industry’s self-proclaimed roll as “gate-keeper” was the sheer volume of truly execrable fantasy they publish with a straight face.)

    Christian mythology has god creating the world in seven days. It’s much harder for human beings to create a believable, functional world, than it is for a deity. Good fantasy is, if anything, harder than any other genre, because you have to make things up that work. If it doesn’t, it’s not believable.

    1. Laurel,

      And there’s enough bad fantasy out there to fill Lake Ontario.

      The true Gate Keepers are the readers. If the readers like what you’ve done, that’s the ultimate compliment. Heh. Was really neat. This cute little blonde girl I went to school with (who is now a great aunt) read the first ten chapters of the book – her response was ‘WOW!’ Made me feel really good.

      Yes, but Christian Mythology makes perfect sense. Assume that you understood all of the current theories perfectly, and you took the Tardis back to meet with Moses, to tell him about the Creation, and you had one hour to do it in (and a Star Trek Universal Translator to handle language issues). Moses was an educated man for his day. Could he have understood your explanation? No. Could the later editors of the Old Testament have understood what Moses wrote even if he understood your explanation perfectly? No. So you end up with an abridged explanation that the average man and woman of the day could understand.

      Writing Fantasy is hard work. Writing anything, and making it REAL is hard work.

      But it’s worth it. Getting a WOW in response is worth all the work.


  2. Oh, you’ve nailed the novel writing process perfectly here! At the stops and starts…all the tweaking and research and backstory. All the data collection and keeping track of time lines, relationships, etc!

    While my novel isn’t fantasy, it is set in a historical period that involves thorny research questions that I have to contend with. Thank god for the internet and wikipedia! And Amazon for book purchases…

    I relate with everything you said!

    Julie Johnson

    1. Thanks Julie. Out of all the posts I’ve written for the blog, this is the most personal one. I’ve put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into this book. It won’t be perfect, but that isn’t for a lack of trying.


  3. I wish I had a Shirley out there to ask me the hard questions.

    My writers’ group is all about praise. “We love your book.” “You are such a good writer.” Gag!

    I am not a baby. I want my book to be born. I need someone with experience to hold my bastard-child and tell me if he is worth keeping or if I should just give him up.

    I am so glad to have found you. šŸ˜‰

    1. I had to think about what you asked. I’d love to be able to help. The problem is that while I’d like to be able to, I’m not sure that I’m experienced enough to.

      I do have a suggestion for you though. Why don’t you sign up at Web Lit Canada? We are trying to put together a community of writers who can help each other, a co-op of sorts, so that we can trade skills with each other. While the site was originally set up for Canadian writers (so I could ask for Canadian grant money if I decided I needed to – I own the site) everyone is welcome.


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