As a fantasy writer I have come across my fair share of people who think my chosen genre is nothing but silly reused nonsense composed of the same old places, people and adventures. And in a way it is. The same archetypal characters and situations are employed, but for good reason and to great effect if done properly. But still I encounter people who sneer or scoff when I mention what genre I write, as if Fantasy is somehow a lesser art. It seems to me that for the most part, unless people write fantasy novels (in one sub-genre or another) or are natural fans, they tend to look down their noses at the people whose minds dwell in the past or atop some misty hill where the fey are dancing before their very eyes.
I have often heard that as a historical fantasy writer, my job must be very easy considering my characters/environments don’t have to conform to “real” world rules that tug and weigh down people in the “real” world. If I want the grass to be ruby-red well then my grass is ruby-red, if I want my characters to fly…then POOF they can fly without anymore explanation than my typing that they can do so. Yeah…here’s what I have to say about that: Say you have a character in both a modern-day ordinary novel as well as one in a historical fantasy one, and say that character lives in a very desert-like dry place and you are having him/her get dressed for the day. Naturally they must put something on that will be cool enough that they will not suffer a heat stroke the moment they open the front door. It takes all of two seconds for the modern character and writer to decide to throw on a cool cotton t-shirt because hey, t-shirts are real, they’re relatively cool and no one would question that.
That same character in a h/f novel cannot just grab an old cotton shirt from the bottom of his wardrobe, that is before the author has considered and researched the following:
1) Did they have cotton clothing in the time period you are writing in?
2) If so, how did they make it and where? Is it something that can be grown and produced in the land you are writing about? Or must is be shipped from elsewhere, or is that even an option for your novel?
3) Which leads you to research the necessities of growing cotton: how much water is needed, does your dry-hot land provide that much water, what soil is best? ect. ect.
Because if your character is living in a cotton-inhospitable environment without access to trade, then they cannot possibly throw on a cotton garment. And for those who don’t think readers will notice, you might be surprised at the amount of things a fantasy reader will pick up on. They notice almost everything! If there is an inconsistency, THEY WILL SEE IT AND IT WILL BUG THE CRAP OUT OF THEM. Which may impact your future sales.
But I hear you, I hear you, what about silk, leather, muslin, wool…something else! Why don’t you just chose something else and skip all this drama? Well…it all involves the same process. Where do you get the silkworms, leather might work but it will be hot as heck, muslin is a form of cotton clothing and puts you right back in the old problem, and wool garments –other than being hot and itchy– of course comes from a live animal (sheep/goat/camel ect.) and that leads you to the keeping of animals in the dry-hot place.
Basically, if you build a world instead of using the provided one with all its well-known and deeply ingrained rules and limitations, you must literally build one. From the ground up. The world must make sense or it will fail. That requires time and effort to be spent outside the actual story, so that the author truly understands the place he or she is describing. Fantasy novels aren’t all wizards and fairies and such, they’re a study in plant life, science and zoology. It takes two seconds to grab a cotton t-shirt, but hours and days to study how that shirt came into existence.
Think about it the next time you scoff at a fantasy novel, or tell the author what they do is easy. Think about it the next time you go to grab a shirt; take a moment to feel the texture of the material between your fingers and thank the lucky stars that you don’t HAVE to know anything other than it fits. And even that’s optional nowadays.
Originally published in September 2012.