I’ve been asking around about what kind of content people would like to see, and one thing that’s come up several times has been the creative process. Aka, how do you write a book? It’s not a short answer, so I’ll break it down into chunks and throw them up here from time to time. Today, I’ll talk a little bit about research, and specifically what I did for the Cartographer Series.
First things first, fiction is all well and good, but it has to have some grounding in reality — in things people can understand. A good way to explain it is that you can write an imaginative story with dragons in it, but those dragons still have to obey the laws of physics! Meaning, they are still subject to gravity. You can make it so they flap big ‘ole wings or they have some secret magic that allows flight, but if anyone is to believe your story, you have to explain how these things can exist in a context the reader will understand. Whatever you do not explain needs to be real. And the more truth you can slap into a story, the easier it is for a reader to swallow. Hence, research. Even though I’m writing fiction, I want to have enough truth in there that it FEELS REAL.
I pulled a few books off the shelf to give you a visual. It’s not a comprehensive list, but it’s a sample I could find along the bottom shelf in my office ;) I read all of these specifically in preparation for writing the Cartographer. I fictionalized it all, and took whatever liberties I wanted since it was my world and my story, but the inspiration these books provided is the foundation I started building on.
The ceremonial sorcery in the Cartographer is derived from real (fake) rituals Aleister Crowley and his ilk conducted in their secret societies. The dress, the emblems, much of that wiggled its way into my books. Crowley’s practices were drawn from Egyptian rites, so I went a layer down and read about those as well. Much of the symbolism in the magic of the Cartographer is analogous to Egyptian myth. Life, death, sun, moon, the geometry of the patterns, even some of the names originated from there. ISISandra, HATHIA, THOTHam. Again, my magic system is not purely derived from Egyptian magic, but it’s inspired by it.
The Company in the Cartographer is of course a pretty obvious doppelgänger for the actual East India Company. The fictional Company’s history is the closest thing to true history in the book ;) I was inspired by traveling to England, Singapore, and India back when I had a day job, and I spent some time finding out more about the relationships between colonizer and colonized. I visited museums to see exhibits on the topic in Singapore & India, and of course I read. I just hope my crazy adventure fantasy story ends up being half as wild as the actual history…
I found a surprisingly good history of rum at my parent’s house, and did thorough testing. Not to mention the in depth study of gin while in England. I stand by all of the drinks in my book!
I won't get into the copious amounts of fiction I also read to “get a feel” for what I wanted to write, but I included Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell because it’s a great book. I read a lot more bad ones…
And no pictures, but I’ve also spent countless hours sifting through the internet on various topics. The titles of the peers in my books are analogous to the titles of peers in England, though I did away with some of the formal ways of addressing them because it was annoying to write. All of the details around ships were taken from East India Company histories or straight off the internet (don’t let me down now, Wikipedia). I won’t claim all of that stuff is accurate, but I think it’s accurate enough. Again, my intent is to write fiction, and the real world is the base. So, Google is my go-to when stumbling across any specific detail I don’t immediately know.
The maps of the Cartographer might also feel familiar to those looking closely. Enhover = England. The United Territories = Continental Europe. Vendatt Islands = Southeast Asia. Southlands & Darklands = Northern Africa. Westlands = North America. The idea is that these places are not direct copies of the real geography, but I want to make a subconscious link in reader’s minds when they’re going through the series. It’s a sort of cheap way of world-building. You may have some familiarity with these places and so I don’t need to go into depth on why Enhover has sheep or the Vendatt’s grow the spices. And if you don’t make all of those connections, no big deal!
I don’t expect anyone to pick up on every reference, but if you pick up on some of them, my hope is that it grounds this story and makes it resonate.
And for those wondering, on Benjamin Ashwood instead of real history, my model was the 90’s era fantasy I grew up reading. The farm boy with a sword stuff. I regret some of my references there because I think people took them the wrong way, but there were intentional references to my sources. Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time was a huge influence, and the most obvious in the book. The opening sequence was meant to evoke his opening and I wanted people to settle into that farm-boy is going on the adventure headspace as they read my book. Then, the fun part is upsetting those expectations down the road! But the trick is knowing the material well enough that I can mimic and head fake with it. You’ve got to do your research!
Some other avenues I’ve gone down for research & inspiration or plan to go down are real life experience. Travel has been an enormous one for me in all of my books. I also love going to renaissance festivals because even though they’re far from authentic, there’s a vibe I want to capture. A lot of authors participate in HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) or hand to hand combat training. I recently got a line on a well-known historical scholar and weapons expert who I hope can help me with that instead ;) This face is too pretty to risk at the end of a sword!
So, this is a super long post that says, “I read a lot”. It’s true, and for the most part that simple, but hopefully you’ve found some of these details entertaining and have a little faith that some of the stuff happening in my books isn’t quite as crazy as it seems!