This is another subject too big to cover completely in a single blog post, but let’s look, at least, at a few basic ideas around the subject of research.

I think authors of fiction can be easily separated into two groups: one that loathes the very thought of doing anything resembling research on any subject ever, and the second that adores and even wallows in research, sometimes for years and years, until they’re the world’s foremost thought leader on that subject and are assured that every last detail in their novel is exactly perfect.

There is no in between, and both groups are doing it wrong.

Okay… you know what I mean.

Why would someone who is writing fiction—and especially fantasy—have to do any research at all?

Author Edward P. Jones asked a similar question in his essay “Finding the Known World” from the book The World Split Open: Great Authors on How and Why We Write:

After the novel (The Known World) was finished, my editor suggested that we put a few lines inside—maybe on the opposite of the title page—saying that none of the characters were real, that they were not based on any real people. And I told her, and I tell other people, that there shouldn’t be any need for that because on the front of the book it says, “a novel.”

Fair enough, but readers will come into your work with an infinite variety of experiences and expectations, including detailed knowledge or uneducated assumptions regarding some detail you thought inconsequential, but whose perceived “wrongness” will ruin their experience of the story. This is not something you can predict and chasing after that degree of perfection, especially since some number of those “expert” readers are actually wrong and you’re right, or you’re both wrong, or you’re both a little wrong and a little right… I’m already exhausted. But still, 2+2=4, and if your book says differently, you better have some fun, plausible fantasy built up around why that is.

I won’t belabor the whole plausibility vs. realism thing again—it’s pretty much all over everything I’ve ever written about writing fantasy, science fiction, and horror. If anything, a little research will help you avoid what I sometimes too safely refer to as “the Giggle Factor”—a fact that’s not that big a deal but is wrong in some way that makes everyone in the know giggle. Unless you want readers to giggle at a particular moment in your book, that can really mess you up.

For me, though, the most important reason to do basic research is that it can provide fresh ideas—things you never thought of that all of a sudden bring a scene to life, alters what you thought a character might say in a particular situation that propels that character to a whole new level, and so on. You never know what gems are waiting for you in the next Google result or the next book on the library shelf.

(I know you aren’t going to the library, but let an old man dream.)

When writing genre fiction in particular, some initial choices in terms of your sub-genre and general approach will start to reveal how much research you have in store for you or how little research you can get away with. If your fantasy world has magic you can explain away an awful lot with that one mechanic, for instance. Historical fantasy and alternate history or “hard” science fiction will require significant research. Contemporary science fiction (it’s 2019 and the aliens invade Earth), urban fantasy (it’s 2019 but the private detective is also a wizard), and almost all horror can require very little research, especially if you’re setting the story in your home town. Created or secondary world fantasy like the Lord of the Rings or the Forgotten Realms world, or far future or alternate reality science fiction like Dune and Star Wars will make their own demands in terms of research. Frank Herbert and J.R.R. Tolkien both put considerable research efforts into their worlds. George Lucas did little or no research at all, leaving it to the writers of the movie Solo to retrofit the whole parsec problem.

But in any case the question only you can answer for yourself and your work in progress is:

What do I need to know?

I brushed up against the concept of research when I talked about naming things. And I stand by my previous statement that naming things is 90% of worldbuilding. But if you are adopting a real world historical setting or using that as a basis for your otherwise created fantasy or science fiction world what do you need to know about, say, behavior and social expectations? Try asking someone already living in that occupation—or the closest thing the real world has to it.

[When doing research for fiction,] start by identifying subject matter experts and do your best to get an interview with them—it’s a fun way to research and get real info. (And make sure you introduce yourself honestly. It can take courage and self-confidence, but it makes sure everything is above board.)

…wrote author Chris Stollar.

What do you need to know regarding science and technology?

Jeff VanderMeer said in an interview with Writer’s Digest:

Well, I’m looking right now at my research, which is, literally, a desk piled with like 200 books on various things to do with nature, and climate change and whatnot. And one thing I realized before Hummingbird Salamander was just simply that I’d already been doing this since the ’80s in terms of talking about climate change in my fiction, more or less. But I’ve not been doing so directly. When I looked at all these books that I’d already read, I realized I had already done all the research.

VanderMeer further touches on the process of research and how it folds into the actual writing of the story:

But my approach to research is pretty much this: I think about a story for a long time because that gives me the leeway to do the research early on, and then let it become just kind of organic in the back of my head.

And he isn’t the only one who kept stacks of books and copious notes, who was essentially always “researching.” In her biography of pulp author Lester Dent, Bigger Than Life: The Creator of Doc SavageMarilyn Cannaday wrote:

Between, around, and through Dent’s travels and his many roles wove threads of an endless supply of stories. It was all material. He was a voracious reader. He searched out plots and characters and kept scrapbooks of clippings and notes—a storehouse of ideas for settings and scientific gadgets which Doc Savage and his troupe would use to extricate themselves from their many predicaments. Dent seemed to mix his reading and actual experiences with the very air he breathed, spinning them into episode after episode. He hardly knew where his life left off and writing began.

Reading Doc Savage, though, it’s clear that at some point—pretty early in the process—the research gave way to the imagination. This is fiction, after all, so there does need to be some end point to your research, some beginning point to your writing, and just like I’ve advised you to keep yourself open to knew, better ideas as you’re writing, the same goes for staying open to setting aside fact in favor of fiction, or as Richard Gilliam put it in his essay “Honest Lies and Darker Truths: History and Horror Fiction” in the book On Writing Horror:

There is, though, a danger that the fictional image may overwhelm the historical one. Certainly there are many examples of inaccurate propaganda being advanced to further unworthy political or social agendas. It’s a dangerous game to tamper with history for the sake of convenient storytelling. Still, every work of fiction in some way must deviate from objective history; it is the very nature of fiction to do so. Each writer must determine individually the standards and limits for abstractions from the objective world.

There’s an old saying: “Truth is stranger than fiction.” I don’t think that’s true. Our imaginations kick the shit out of reality on a day to day basis. Let facts help you, but don’t let facts suppress your imagination. We read fiction in celebration of the latter.


—Philip Athans

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, ( is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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  1. Adam says:

    I think research is another example of the elusive “just right” balance that writers often strive for but rarely achieve. One technique that I’m fond of is writing a rough draft, and letting that dictate what research is needed. If the characters end up on a ship, that gets added to the list, though even then, the list could grow quite large.
    Recently I came across another technique from Brandon Sanderson. He called it “smoke and mirrors”, where he finds a way to avoid going into details. For example, instead of learning about the details of horse care, he chose to have the protagonist hand off his horse to servants, who take care of those details off camera. I think he also referenced another author who suffered severe sea sickness as a way of justifying the fact that the character experienced an entire sea voyage in a kind of delirium, incapable of retaining any details about the experience.
    Very interesting, and a great example of how easy it is to allow our own assumptions to overly narrow our options.

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