How to build a higher castle in the air: the benefits of research


If there is one thing I found out for myself, it is that you can build a much higher castle in the air if you have a solid foundation based on facts.

Indeed, the best advice I can give to anyone wanting to make their first attempt at writing fantasy or science fiction would be ‘get your facts straight’. Readers will find it easier to follow a flight of fancy if there is internal logic in the original world building.

This is why Middle Earth, Narnia, the Discworld, and the Land of Oz have captured so many imaginations. Each of these worlds have an internal logic of their own, with grim and gritty elements as well as the beautiful and fabulous. Take as our example, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld – it still works by the laws of chemistry and physics, but magic has been added as an extra layer over those known laws. Magic still has to conform to the ‘conservation of mass’, the ‘for every reaction there is an equal and opposite reaction’, and so forth. Magic takes work and effort. So when something truly magical does happen, the audience knows how phantasmagorical it really is. And more often than not, Pratchett makes science seem just as wondrous as magic. His magic ‘works’ because it conforms to his world’s rules.

These are fantasy examples, but science fiction works in the same way. If you invent a new type of gadget, it must work consistently the same way each time it appears. The master of this technique was Isaac Asimov, who was a scientist by training and nature. He didn’t let the rules of his created worlds limit his imagination; instead, he used his structures to make his wildest scenes seem quite probable. His robot stories worked because he limited his fictional robotic characters with his Three Laws of Robotics (if you don’t know them, go look them up), and with the laws of physics and chemistry and biology. In his best known work I, Robot, every story has some real science to underpin the plot. The best example is in ‘Little Lost Robot’, where the plot hinges on the difference between gamma radiation and infrared radiation.

Getting your details and facts right takes research. It might seem strange that you would need to do research for a fantasy novel but … how far can a warhorse travel in a day? What if that horse is carrying a man in armour? Would a man even be able to walk after riding all day in armour? Can chainmail stop an arrow? You wouldn’t believe how many fantasy novels get these facts wrong. And nothing alienates a reader faster than jarring problems with the plot, setting and characterization in a novel.

Time spent researching is time well spent. And – just so you know – there are many different ways you can construct a castle. Is it a Norman fort? Does it have a curtain wall? Before you build that castle, you might want to find out what sort of castle it is.


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Filed under Research, Steampunk, writing, Writing Style

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