Advice SectionReal-World Research

by Lawrence Watt-Evans


Being a brief fanzine article on the necessity of real-world research even in fantasy.


Text last revised: March 15, 1999


If one writes mysteries, or historicals, or science fiction, everyone knows that research is involved.

With fantasy it's not quite so obvious--but there's research involved all the same. Or there should be--some writers don't bother, and it shows.

Just what sort of research depends on where your story's set. Anything that corresponds to the real world needs research; anything that doesn't, doesn't.

In other words, magic needs no research. You can make it up, and nobody can tell you you're wrong, because the fact is that magic doesn't actually exist. You can make up almost anything you want, as long as you're consistent and it sounds reasonable.

If you include anything real, though, you need to get it right.

If your hero is traipsing around in plate armor, you'd better know the names of the various pieces and how they go on. You'd better know what a hauberk is, and a gambeson, and a surcoat, and all the rest of it.

If you can't be bothered, then don't put your hero in armor.

If you put your hero on a horse, you'd better know a little horsemanship. I got caught on this once; I described a frightened horse as bucking.

Frightened horses don't buck, they rear; horses only buck when they're in pain. I corrected this in the British edition, but my American publisher wasn't willing to reset the type after the book was published.

If you describe a swordfight, you don't need to be a fencer (though it doesn't hurt), but you ought to know something about swords.

If you get anything wrong, somebody out there will catch it and write to you, or some nitpicker will include it in a review, and you'll spend the rest of your life feeling stupid.

The bucking horse wasn't too bad, but I'll never live down the incident where Garth of Ordunin set a damp wool cloak aflame with tinder and steel, and it burned cleanly away to ash without stinking up the entire neighborhood.

Of course, sometimes somebody will catch something that isn't wrong, and then you can gloat. Like the guy who pointed out that the sword I called a "saber" in The Lure of the Basilisk wasn't a saber at all, that he had a fencing sabre right there on his lap and it was entirely different.

I happen to have a cavalry saber right on my shelves, and he's right, it isn't anything like a fencing sabre. It is exactly what I described.

(Jerk.)

And you need to know what can be done with these things.

The aforementioned Garth of Ordunin went about his adventures armed with various weapons, but a favorite was a bastard broadsword, also known as a hand-and-a-half sword, so-called (both names) because it's midway between a standard one-handed broadsword and one of the huge two-handed swords used by certain particularly large and powerful warriors. A bastard sword can be swung with one hand, or held in both for a more powerful blow.

There isn't much written about how to use a bastard sword, or even how to draw one. I knew it was worn on the back, being far too long to wear at the waist, but just how did you draw the thing? Could you draw it under a low ceiling? How did you swing one? How far could you reach with it?

I didn't have a bastard sword, just the saber, so I took a broom, which is about the right size, and tried a few things--and my wife came home as I was standing in the living room, holding a broom out in front of me, practicing jabs.

Thus my title.

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