Sometimes we want to put something in our stories, but we don’t know much about it. What’s the answer? Research! Whether it’s the specifics of knotwork on a Phoenician trade ship or the grand sweep of empires colliding, research is a vital skill for speculative fiction writers. Listen as we discuss the sources that are available, how much research is too much, and when you just don’t have room to include everything you’ve learned. Plus, the controversy of spruce beer!
Generously transcribed by Mouse Bowden. Volunteer to transcribe a podcast.
Chris: You’re listening to the Mythcreants podcast with your hosts, Oren Ashkenazi, Wes Matlock, and Chris Winkle.
Oren: And welcome, everyone, to another episode of the Mythcreants podcast. I’m Oren, and with me today is:
Oren: And unfortunately today, I didn’t do any research for this episode. And now I feel like I’m not prepared.
Wes: How dare you!
Oren: Okay, that’s a lie. I did a lot of research for this episode because this episode is about research.
Wes: That’s so meta.
Chris: You didn’t actually do any research, did you, Oren.
Oren: I refuse to comment. You can’t make me. Self-incriminating evidence and all that. But no, I figured that research is something we should talk about, what with the fantasy and the sci fi and the world building. Sometimes people want to know things, like “how do boat work.” And maybe they would want to find out.
Chris: The funniest thing to me is that there’s some writers out there who think that speculative fictions storytellers don’t have to do any research.
Wes: Yeah, they just somehow make it all up.
Chris: That just cracks me up. “You don’t have to do research – you just make everything up!” Um…
Oren: Are there people who think that?
Chris: Yeah. For reals.
Wes: They think that people who write non-fiction do all the heavy-handed research, and it’s like, come on. People are creative, but to make it believable, you have to learn a lot.
Oren: To be fair, I definitely do way more research for modern stories than I do for second-world fantasy. Now granted, that might just be because I sort of live in a constant wash of historical information, so I don’t think of it as research.
Chris: Yeah, I mean, you’re pretty much constantly consuming history videos on YouTube – I don’t know that, but just from talking to you, it seems like you’re constantly consuming history videos on YouTube.
Oren: Look, I can stop any time I want. I don’t—I just—these are just choices, Chris. These are just choices.
Oren: But yes, research can be very useful, especially if you want your setting to feel more immersive. So there are a few rules that I have. I actually have three rules of research that I think we will do well to follow, and the first rule is: multiple sources. Always multiple sources.
Wes: Yes. Good.
Oren: This is something that you’re going to have to spend some time on if it’s important. If it’s not important, whatever. But if it’s important…if your story is set on a ship and the workings of that ship are important to you, then you should definitely get more than one source. Especially if it’s for anything that’s even remotely controversial. I love wikis, I think wikis are great – I think they’re a giant step forward in the sharing of knowledge – but they don’t always give you the full picture. No one source will give you the full picture. Wikipedia is just so easy to access now that we sometimes lose sight of that.
Chris: Although I will say that definitely when writing fiction, there is a hierarchy of things that need to be more rigorously fact checked and things that don’t.
Chris: And especially when, a lot of times, you do have to manage your time. And I’ve definitely had it happen before where I was planning on writing a short story, and then I decided to do research first, and then I just never wrote it because I got too bogged down in doing research and decided that was not – especially for a short story, right, they’re not very long – that was not very time efficient. And so some writers can go overboard and get too bogged down on the world-building.
Wes: In your case, Chris, did you start to just get overwhelmed, or did you feel like you just weren’t quite learning enough? How did that play out?
Chris: I wanted to write a short story that was specifically inspired by American folktales. Which, it turned out, they’re awful. That was part of the problem. What is American folklore like? It’s bad. But I could’ve gotten rid of that and just wrote it and not worried about it trying to have it be American folktale inspired. But by the time I was done, I kind of lost enthusiasm, like the novelty of the idea, and I just felt like I’d spent too long on it and wanted to move on to something else.
Wes: Oh, I see, yeah. Also, if it’s not good, it probably just saps your strength. It’s like, oh no, my research is just bumming me out.
Chris: Well, yeah. It turned out, I was specifically trying to find fantastical beasts from American folklore. I found a few cool ones, but there wasn’t the wealth of information I was hoping for, and I just that found it was full of racist, sexist stuff, and America’s… You want to see the origins of toxic masculinity in America, just read some folklore.
Wes: Look no farther.
Chris: But anyway, you’re right; if I’d found more material that had kept me going, that’d inspired me more, it probably would’ve helped with that.
Chris: I do think that enjoying the research really matters.
Wes: Definitely, yeah. Did you find anything besides a jackalope? Because that’s the only one I know.
Chris: So the jackalope isn’t even that old.
Wes: Oh boy. Okay.
Chris: A town made it up as a tourist thing. It’s manufactured; it’s not even–
Chris: Well, we will have to do another podcast some time on American folklore.
Wes: Definitely, okay.
Chris: If you want to read some things, I have some books I can lend you even.
Wes: You’ve already done exhaustive research, yes.
Chris: Yes. Back to our topic.
Oren: Right. So I just wanted to touch a little bit more on multiple sources. And yes, if you’re doing a small short story, the amount of research you’ll want to do should scale with that. There’s not exactly a hard rule, but if you’re spending twenty hours researching a 2000-word story, that’s probably too much. But if you don’t consult multiple sources, it is very easy to get mistakes. Because nowadays, you would expect that people would check this, but they don’t always. You can get very conflicting reports. If I may share an anecdote…
Wes: Ooh, do.
Chris: Yeah, let’s do it.
Oren: So I was researching for a post on water travel, doing a lot of research for that, and I was looking up various cures for scurvy, because if you’re going to be dealing with long-distance voyages, you should know probably about scurvy and how that works. And one cure that I kept seeing repeated on a lot of specialist articles talking about this was spruce beer. Okay, that seems to check out; there are a lot of historical accounts of people insisting that spruce beer cured scurvy, and spruce needles have a lot of vitamin C in them, so that seems reasonable.
But I was like, alright, I should look a little bit more into this. And I did, and I discovered that spruce beer actually has no vitamin C in it at all because the fermentation process destroys all the vitamin C, and what little tiny bit is left gets leeched out in storage after just a few days. And there have been studies done recently to test this. Well okay, that’s weird – now, suddenly, I have conflicting information. So how do you explain all of these historical accounts? And I haven’t been able to find anything that’s conclusively explained them, but my personal hypothesis is that they were based on a misunderstanding of spruce tea, or “spruce aqueous infusion,” as the scientists call it. Because that is basically just putting spruce needles in hot water and letting the spruceness seep into the water.
Wes: Mm, yum.
Oren: You know, the spruceness – that’s very scientific.
Chris: That’s very scientific.
Oren: And that drink actually does have some vitamin C in it – not a ton, but enough, if you were drinking it regularly. And from what I can tell, there are several accounts of various Native Americans – Native American groups, I should say – using spruce tea to ward off scurvy during the winter months when they didn’t have any vegetables around. And they probably shared that information with Europeans who came into contact with them, and the Europeans were like, “Ah, man, if it works as a tea, it would work even better as a beer. Everyone loves beer.” And after that, probably everything was probably false positives. Any time anyone who drinks spruce beer doesn’t get scurvy, then suddenly they were cured by the spruce beer. And if they ever did get scurvy, ah, it was a weird outlier, don’t worry about it. That’s what I suspect happened.
Chris: That’s too bad, because curing scurvy with spruce beer just sounds cool.
Wes: It does. It sounds super cool. I want some right now.
Oren: Yeah, I mean, spruce beer can still be delicious, don’t get me wrong. Absolutely, if you want to drink spruce beer, just do it. Just also have some onion juice or something. Onion juice will cure scurvy real good.
Chris: So I have a question. Do either of you do much research in meat space?
Wes: Meat space?
Chris: As in, not online.
Wes: Oh my gosh.
Chris: As in, not on the computer, not cyberspace.
Oren: I ordered a book from cyberspace and then I had to read it in meat space. I did not much care for the experience, to be perfectly honest.
Wes: Well, my work has a relatively large library, and since we work with literature, there’s a lot of references. And so I get to do that and talk to coworkers about that. So I think that counts? But I haven’t been to the library in a while, unfortunately.
Chris: I really like the idea of using libraries, but when I go there and look at the books on the shelves, they all look pretty old. Like a couple decades, at least. And that always makes me nervous that the information they might have in them is out of date, even if I find books on the subject matter that I’m looking for. Which is too bad, and of course libraries are very much modernizing and also leaving meat space behind.
Wes: Yeah, that’s an interesting question. We’re primed to accept that the most up-to-date stuff is digital. You can only get the most current research and all the these things by going on the internet and searching for it, and any tome is just somehow, every day, losing – kind of losing relevance, maybe. I guess it depends on the topic. But I’ve felt that way too, definitely.
Oren: Definitely some sources can be rendered startlingly out of date in just a few decades. It’s very possible that if you went to the library and got one of their older books on Polynesian history, you would find a book insisting that the Polynesians settled the various islands by accident because they got blown there by storms or whatever. We know that’s not true, and the Polynesians knew that wasn’t true for a long time, but it hasn’t been common Western white people knowledge until the last few decades. So that could definitely be a thing. That’s another thing about multiple sources is that very often, history is controversial, especially if it is in any way linked to modern prejudices. So you want to be careful; you want to not necessarily take the first account you find.
Wes: I will say, though, there is something comforting about that, picking up an old – I shouldn’t say old – but you grab a large book, and you touch it, and you hold it, and you’re like, okay. I’m holding a thing here that is comprehensive. It feels, certainly, more authoritative because it’s bound; it’s not a listical, you didn’t find it on a random blog. And there’s some small comfort in that.
Chris: Well certainly, I really like books, definitely more than I like looking and researching on blogs, just because books, as you said, are comprehensive. But more than that, they have a lot of information that is carefully laid out in a systematic manner. It’s been professionally edited, probably. It had somebody who probably thought, honestly, a lot harder about it than a lot of times we see with blog posts. I do find with books, it’s sometimes hard to find the book on the niche topic that you’re looking for. And when you have a whole book, it’s hard to tell – is this book going to cover the niche topic?
Wes: The title might trick you.
Wes: Oh, this seems like what I’m looking for, right?
Chris: Right. One of my favorite world building books is this book that you would never know. It’s called Engineering in the Ancient World, and it’s mostly just talking about how water mills work and stuff like that. It’s surprisingly interesting, because the writer is a good writer. But it has a little section on land travel and a larger chapter on water travel that are actually really handy. But no one looking at that book would ever know that it has that little tidbit stuck in the center. And luckily, with going back to cyberspace, Amazon does let you read the beginning. Which, there are some books that I have really wanted to buy, but then I read the first few pages on Amazon and was like, I can’t…I can’t deal with the way this writer writes. I can’t deal with it. Too hard to get information out of this sort of elaborate word craft or what have you. But seeing the table of contents and all that is helpful often.
Oren: So I actually really like books, I just prefer them in electronic format, primarily because it’s easier to take notes on them that way. When I’m doing my research, I’ve got the book open on one half of the screen and then a word document on the other half of the screen, and when I find something interesting, I’m like “ooh that’s interesting,” and I write it down and put a page number. And that’s just hard to do if I’m writing the book – writing the book? That’s just hard to do if I’m reading the book with my hands, made of paper. What am I supposed to do, hold it open with one hand and scribble in my chicken scratch with the other hand? That’s not going to work.
Chris: That’s what stickums are for. You put your stickums in the book.
Oren: That’s…no. That’s chaos, Chris. That way lies chaos.
Chris: How dare we.
Oren: Yeah, I know, right. How dare you. But I’m definitely finding that I get more out of my e-copy of the Engineering of the Ancient World than my hardcopy of the Strategicon, which just doesn’t exist in ebook format, unfortunately. That’s just a format preference.
Chris: A lot of writers travel to experience the settings that they… I recently did a one-day walking trip in Seattle. I’m working on a post-apocalyptic Seattle story right now, and I really thought that was nice and made a difference. Now, granted, I also had somebody with me who could answer questions about invasive species of plants, which I wanted to know. Which is the other source of information, is just people.
Wes: Knowledgeable friends, right.
Chris: Yeah. Yeah, I mean, in my experience, I do think that just knowing the right person who has the expertise is some of the best way to research. But also the toughest to acquire, so.
Oren: Yeah, and travel can definitely be a valuable way of researching. I mean, it’s expensive.
Chris: That’s the big problem, yeah.
Oren: You need to have some means, but if you can do it and you like traveling, I think that that’s a very reasonable thing. I neither have the means, nor do I like traveling, so it’s not something I usually think about. But you know, go for it, if that’s your deal. If you’ve got the cash.
Chris: Well, the next best thing is probably YouTube.
Oren: I actually probably get more of my information from YouTube videos than from books, just because people will film anything.
Wes: Yes they will.
Oren: They will film it, and they will put it on YouTube, and you can watch them doing it. And some of these are older documentaries that got put up, and they sometimes have information. But the ones that I found that are actually the most useful are either – just for greater historical understanding – are the newer ones, stuff like Extra History or Crash Course. Those are both very good for understanding the sweep of history. And then if you want to get into the nitty gritty details, you just watch a video made by some random people on a sailing boat. And they’re like, “Here, look at us do the sailing boat thing.” And I’m like, “Oh hey, I know what those things are. Yeah, those things. I’m gonna write about those in my book.” That’s a very useful resource that I have discovered that is like traveling, except I sent someone else to do it.
Chris: Yeah, it’s good for really random things like, What does the inside of manhole look like? You can see lots of people who decided to videotape the inside of manholes; you can see what they actually look like in there.
Wes: It’s also not intentional DIY – intentional like sometimes in research – but I like the do-it-yourself library of YouTube videos, because people film themselves doing everything. So there is inspiration to be found, especially if you’re working on a story where there’s not a lot of means for making certain things happen. And you know, people – you can do an awful lot with one can of DW-40 and a bunch of aluminum. It’s fascinating, just the pure ingenuity that people can bring to solving problems with just simple everyday items or trash. That is pretty cool. That is definitely some inspired stuff.
Chris: So if you’re writing a MacGyver…
Chris: Go to Youtube for ideas.
Wes: Yeah. You know, you’ve all met that person or somebody who like, “Oh, why don’t you just try this?” And you’re like, “Wow, that’ s – what a cool idea.” And there’s websites full of that stuff. Finding it can be a little difficult, but if you start with a problem, you’ll probably surface something of interest.
Oren: The one thing to be careful about with YouTube – and this can be a problem with any source, but with YouTube in particular – is that unfortunately, because a certain company that shall remain nameless but is Google refuses to enforce their own terms of service, large sections of YouTube are basically a cesspool of far right propaganda. You can be watching a perfectly normal video on the armor style of the Roman legion, and then suddenly the host is like, “Now, let me tell you about my opinions on feminism.” And you’re like, “Wait, hang on a minute.”
Oren: So, you know, be wary. There are plenty of blatantly far-right political channels, and you should also avoid those, but they will try to sneak them into your normal, I just wanted to know about how donkeys were ridden in this time period. It’s like, yeah, we’ll tell you about that, but you also have to hear about Hitler. I don’t want to. That’s not what I’m here for. So just be careful for that. That’s my word of warning.
Chris: Oh, a great series that is on YouTube now: there’s the Victorian farm series. If you’re in Europe maybe, or at least in Britain, you should be able to just get that from the BBC. But Americans don’t really have any other way to watch it other than on YouTube. But it’s a really good series where the historians farm in the historical style and live in the historical style. They’ve got different seasons in different periods. Technically, the different seasons are completely different shows, but it’s basically the same show with different seasons, where they’ll do Tudor period, or Victorian period, and they have one during, I think it was World War I–
Oren: World War II, but yeah, so they have a whole bunch of different periods. Mostly farms, but they also have one on trains, they have one where they go to a castle building site. It’s fantastic. It is such a good resource. It will give you so many wonderful details. My favorite is the flooring. When they went to the castle, they were like, “We need to figure out what to make the flooring in our house out of. We’re certainly not making it out of wood, so we’re going to make it out of these bundles of reeds.” And I’m like, well, that’s a nice little immersive detail. I’ll put that right in there.
Chris: Very good. And I often find it’s those little details that are the hardest when you’re trying to research something to make your setting feel real because nobody thinks it’s important enough to put it in a blog post usually. So getting those little lifestyle details can be really tough.
Oren: I wanted to mention, because I mentioned my first rule of research a while ago–
Wes: Yeah, I was going to say, weren’t there three?
Oren: There are three! I have two more. Don’t worry; they aren’t as long. So the second rule is, don’t get cocky. Because you can learn a lot through research, but be aware that you are, in most cases, trying to figure out what an elephant looks like by looking at its trunk through a magnifying glass. For the boat post that I’m writing, I did about ten hours of research – which is a fair amount for a 5000-word blog post, and that’s enough for me to give you an overview of certain styles of water travel. But it wouldn’t be enough for me to, for example, depict a lot of Jewish religious festivals in detail. I wouldn’t be able to do that just with some research. So there are topics that are higher risk and require a lot more fidelity than others. It’s not a huge deal if you miss out on some knotwork trivia, but it can be a big deal if you mess up someone else’s culture. So that’s the sort of thing why I normally would avoid doing that anyway, just because the risk is high. But if you’re going to, you need to be way more devoted in your research.
Wes: And also understand, if you’re looking at something people have devoted their entire careers towards researching, you can’t TL:DR it and then wave it in everyone’s faces with authority. I like that advice: don’t be cocky.
Oren: Yeah, I mean, it’s easy to feel like because we have so much access to information that we know everything. And I get that – I’ve felt that way sometimes. I’ve sometimes been very shocked to find out there was this very important information that I just had never heard of, and how did I not hear about that? Yeah, that’s a thing that happens. It’s gonna happen. Just get ready for it. And my third rule – as I promised, these two aren’t as long – my third one is just to remember what research is for. We touched on this a little bit earlier, with Chris talking about how you can spend too much time researching. You can also, if you do too much research, or depending on what kind of person you are, you can have difficulty not including all of it. I’m writing a story that’s inspired by the Byzantine Empire, and I really wanted to put in this stuff that I learned about how the Byzantines made their own silk based on silkworms that they stole from China in the world’s first corporate espionage – it’s a great story. And then there was a constant debate about whether or not the Byzantine silk was as good as the Chinese silk, and nobody knows if it was psychosomatic or not. And I wanted to put that in there, and it did not fit. It just didn’t. So I eventually had to stop. I think Chris made me.
Chris: Yeah. Yeah, no, it was too bad. I’ve experienced it before too. As I said, I went on this day trip looking at invasive plants in the Seattle area. And then of course I was thinking about, okay, how do I work all these invasive plants I learned about into the story. And I am trying to use restraint in just giving a few tiny details about each plant. And each plant, actually having them matter at some level – like one of the plants actually hides the protagonist, and so it actually does matter because this is a plant where it has a hollow inside and an outside that looks really thick. So it has a few details that matter, but I’m trying to use enough restraint where I won’t just be talking about the plant for the sake of talking about the plant.
Wes: You could always just write your own invasive species plant book and then just go for it.
Chris: Another place that is surprisingly good for research, although I don’t know how it’s doing these days, is Tumblr. It has, or at least had – even if everybody has left and the old Tumblrs are still up – it has some very niche things. Technically blogs can be niche too, but for some reason, Tumblr seems to acquire a lot of specialists. It encourages specialists that are really writing about one thing. And that’s incredibly useful when you’re researching. For instance, we have the Writing With Color Tumblr that I link to on the blog sometimes that answers people’s questions about when they are writing characters of color. And that’s also just a good place to go to start your research on stereotypes.
They have a nice index of topics that you can start with. This one is discontinued now, but there’s a book: but there was a Tumblr called ScriptMedic where somebody would answer questions about injuries and other things that happened to characters. And she discontinued it, but she wrote a book called Maim Your Characters that you can get on Amazon that’s all about those medical details for when your character is injured. Another one is How To Fight Write, which is somebody who knows a lot about combat who would answer questions and give information about combat. The only thing about that one though – and this is not the only time I’ve seen this happen – is that whenever somebody would ask about a speculative fiction work or something with magic, the writer here would just be like, “Well, realism doesn’t matter now because there’s magic,” and it’s like, no, that’s not how that works. And yeah, ScriptMedic would also have a tough time, be like, “Well, you put magic in there, so now I don’t know how to answer any of your questions.” A lot of people who are not used to the speculative fiction element don’t know how to sort of cordon that off and think about something that feels realistic and rigorous around the magical components.
Oren: Yeah, that’s definitely true. And since we’re running out of time, there is one more thing that I wanted to touch on. When you’re doing historical research, you can look into primary sources if you want to. Those can be very useful. Again, I mentioned I was reading the Strategicon, which is a translation – I’m not reading it in the original Greek. But I would advise caution in that area because a lot of primary sources are very difficult to interpret; you read them and you have no idea what they just said, or often they have their own biases within the primary source. And that’s why historians exist. That’s why historian is a job. They look at primary sources and interpret them for us, and it’s often more effective to read what a historian has written about a period rather than trying to decode the primary sources yourself. Not to say that you can’t, just that I occasionally see some people be like, “You have to go to the primary source, that’s the only way,” but for most fiction-writing purposes, I think you’re often better off just looking at what the professionals have already written about it.
Oren: All right, well, I think that will call this episode to a close. Before we go, I just want to thank two of our patrons. First is Kathy Ferguson, who is a professor of political theory in Star Trek. She’s also one of those professionals I told you about who will write their own interpretation of primary sources so you don’t have to. And our other patron that I want to thank is Ayman Jaber, who writes urban fantasy and knows all there is to know about Marvel. If anything we said piqued your interest, you can leave a comment on the website at mythcreants.com, and we will talk to you next week.
P.S. Our bills are paid by our wonderful patrons. Could you chip in?