Archer at sunrise

The Secret Side of Fantasy Novel Research

Books sprout from the soil of research. Yes, even fiction. And yes, even fantasy.

As I learned in high school, readers don’t appreciate a writer who acts as if they can do whatever they please with the story. The reader feels like we’re cheating.

But I’ve often been asked by readers how I come up with story ideas and details. And the way they ask the question implies that they think it all comes from my own brain.

I don’t invent the stories or the details ex nihilo. I can’t. I’m only human.

Reading in a variety of disciplines, both fiction and non-fiction, provides fuel for the process. You can learn a lot of interesting stuff from books, which is why I surround myself with them. Sometimes the things you glean stick around or influence later thoughts and imaginations.

Obviously, as a Christian author, the Bible informs and influences much of my writing. But for the Treasure of Capric (ToC), I had to delve into the unfamiliar world of monastic orders, looking at their foundations, rules, motivations, and outcomes.

Kurian and his friends leave their monastery home early in the story, but it still influences their entire path: how they act and react, what drives them forward, the habits that give them comfort in a crisis, etc.

All the research into that history inspires and lends colorful details to their world.

But most of the tidbits pulled from reading are intellectual. They give the reader facts about the fantasy world, like a history book provides facts about our own. The history might be intriguing, but it doesn’t pull the reader deeply into the story to engage with the characters.

That’s where the secret side of fantasy research comes in.

What is it?

Real experiences.

Including the sensations that saturate life in a human body gives us a deeper link to these characters. When Kurian and his friends feel the cold of an autumn rain and the pleasure of a hot meal, it’s easy to join them in their comfort and solace.

But what if you’ve never been in a fight? Or stumbled around a sailing ship? Or landed on an island full of vicious Sirens?

Well…obviously not all fantasy fiction experiences can also be lived experiences.

For those details that cross over into our reality, I feel the need to do some research in person. Reading offers good insights and technical accuracy. But I want to share what it feels like in a body, not just in a mind.

I have stumbled around sailing vessels of various sizes since middle school because my brother has always been a sailor. That gives me a better shot at making Kurian’s first experience on a boat feel real.

For the Treasure of Capric I took some refresher courses in fencing and did some extra study in staff fighting. This reminded me of the physicality and stress of fighting, the buzz of an adrenaline dump, even the emotions wrapped up in sparring against (and losing to) a dear friend.

The upcoming sequel (untitled for now) requires a new set of experiences and skills for Kurian and his friends.

Without giving away any spoilers, research for the next part of their story has driven me into the woods.

Foraging for wild food has been a favorite new family pastime and provides a wealth of sensations to breathe real details into Kurian’s story.

As with fencing while researching ToC, researching the sequel has let me pick up archery. This gives our friends a new weapon in their arsenal, and on a personal note, has given me some great bonding experiences with my father-in-law.

Archer at sunrise
Doing some “research” with a friend. If Kurian could see the sunrises in the Idaho mountains…

Pouring through books and combining their insights with this hands-on, experiential, research is what I believe gives the world of The King of The Caves series the “lived-in” feeling that several reviewers have commented on. Pallingham has both a history and culture as a fantasy world, but also touches some elements form our real lives. Hopefully this allows you to travel along on the adventure as you read.

The only downside is that this hands-on research makes life busier and writing slower.

Leave a comment and let me know what details stood out to you while reading Kurian’s adventures so far. And if you care to guess why he needs to be foraging, take a crack at spoiler speculation.

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