Here’s another post about my writing process. Previously, I talked about how I decided I wanted to try writing a “world” series, which would involve a number of semi-standalone stories set in the same world.
If you’re writing a “world” story, though, you need to have a good world, a place where lots of interesting things can happen. Most of my books have involved a ready-made world. There was the New York of Enchanted, Inc., which was the real world with a magical layer added, so it was obvious what I needed to research. I just needed to figure out the magical stuff, and that’s all made up. For the Rebels books, I was using the Gilded Age New York, and I needed to figure out my alternative history and what adding the magic and steampunk touches would involve, but it was still obvious what I needed to research.
For this new thing, I wanted to do a more traditional secondary-world fantasy, so I wasn’t sure what I needed to research. I had a vague idea of what the world would need to be like to tell some of the stories I wanted to tell, and I knew some things that needed to exist in this world, but beyond that, I wasn’t sure. So I took the things I knew needed to be there and started my research reading.
I have two kinds of research when I’m writing a book, idea research and detail research. The idea research comes in the planning stage, when I’m looking for ideas of what might go into the book. Even when I’m making things up, I like to ground my books in some kind of reality. I think that gives them that sense that this could all be real. With a secondary world, it’s about plausibility. I like finding fun little details in the real world and spinning off of them. This kind of research is mostly about reading a bunch of stuff to fill up my brain, and then my brain will digest it all, synthesize it, and create something out of those raw materials. You may not recognize any of the source material in the finished product. It’s like the ore going into the smelter to create iron and steel, which is then made into a washing machine or a car. You can’t see the car in the ore, but you can’t make a car without it.
The detail research comes when I’m actually writing and I need some particular fact to make sure the story works properly. In my previous books set in real places, that usually means a lot of maps and things like “when was this building built?” I have no idea how it will work in an imaginary world, since no one will be able to say “Aha! There’s no bus route serving that location!”
For a couple of years now, I’ve been doing this idea research reading. I started broad, then found a couple of details that intrigued me, so I narrowed in on those topics. Along the way, the world gradually began forming in my head, which gave me more ideas for how the stories might work, which gave me more topics to read about. There have been a lot of branches and rabbit trails along the way — ooh, I could use this, but then I’ll need to know more about that and that. I have about three and a half spiral notebooks full of notes I’ve scribbled down when I’ve found something I think I might use. I’ve learned a lot about a weird variety of subjects.
Now I’ve decided that I’ve done enough reading and it’s time to start putting it all together. I’ve been rereading my research notes and jotting down notes about what might go into my world and how I might use this information. It’s interesting seeing some of the things I was researching at the beginning before I’d narrowed in on a particular place and time I wanted to work with, and I can see the point when I found something that made me decide what the basis of my world would be. There was a very clear moment of “okay, this is what I’m basing this place on.” This process is probably going to continue for a few more days. It took me a day’s work to get through one of the notebooks.
Meanwhile, I’ve also been watching documentaries on these subjects. That’s a good way to get mental images for settings and clothing. The fun thing about a secondary world is that I can pick and choose from the real world and also make things up. If I like the women’s clothes from one period and men’s clothes from another, I can do that. Or if I like parts of the clothes but dislike other parts and the hairstyles, I can do that, too. But that means looking for a variety of sources to decide what I’m going to use and then get the images settled in my head so I can describe them in words.