What are some things you learned from writing fantasy?

by Gail Z. Martin

Q:  What are some things you learned from writing fantasy?

A:  One thing I’ve learned is a definite respect for the hardships which our ancestors endured—plague, famine, lack of clean water, lack of indoor plumbing and central heat, high mortality rates from curable conditions, etc.  At the same time, I’m intrigued by how much joy they were still able to take from life through family and friends, small comforts and conveniences, celebrations and holidays, and good food when there was food to be had.

I’m in awe of what they were able to do with the technology that they had to work with, whether it’s the invention of war machines such as those DaVinci designed, or the creation of complex water and sewer systems, or the sheer temerity to sail across an ocean without modern communication and navigation tools.  And then there’s the cooking.  I’m amazed at the complicated recipes they created to be cooked over open flames or in “ovens” without any reliable temperature control!

I’ve learned a lot about medieval weapons and society, not in a bookish sort of way, but by needing to apply what I learned from history and then live with it in the skin of my characters.  It’s one thing to read about something.  It’s another to put yourself into the moment and have to live with it.

I’ve also learned how much contemporary stories rely on instantaneous communication and modern travel speeds, neither of which were available in the medieval world of epic fantasy.  This has major plot ramifications.  If something happens on one battlefield, there is no way to get word to someone hundreds of miles away faster than a horse and rider can travel, unless you use magic (but magic must be unreliable to avoid being a cheat).  We don’t think about those kinds of delays today, but they were very real throughout most of history.  If a character needs to go to a distant place, they’re constrained by how fast a man can walk or how fast a horse can sustain a gallop.  Especially in battle scenes, these two issues are crucial, because there is no good way to communicate among far-flung  battlefields, no way to know real-time information, no fast way to move an army from here to there.  These kinds of things make a big impact on how you can tell the story, what can be known by your characters, and what options are open to them.

I’ve also learned fun things, like word origins.  For example, people have been retching since 1540,  puking and heaving since the 1600s, but only barfing since the 1960s.  They’ve been pissing since the 1300s and leaking since the 1500s, but they didn’t start to pee until 1788.  If your character needs to do one or the other, you’ve got to get the historically correct term. These things are important for a writer to know!


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