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Setting Research for the Fantasy Writer

Cheryl's Musings: Setting Research for the Fantasy Writer

Cheryl's Musings

How to Thrive on the Writer's Road


Setting Research for the Fantasy Writer

I'm back! Back from Peru, that is, with a swirl of thoughts and ideas to share.

Today's thought: Travel provides a great opportunity for the fantasy writer to do a bit of “setting research.”

Setting research—assembling a complete understanding of a story's location—takes different forms for different genres. Historical fiction writers can travel to their story site or look up clothing, architecture, and tools from the time period; YA writers can visit local high schools. Fantasy writers, though, can't travel to an underground fairy realm (Eoin Colfer) or the post-apocalypse city of Ember (Jeanne Duprau) to collect details. (Bummer, because there are a few worlds I'd love to visit!)

Instead, the fantasy writer's “setting research” occurs in the imagination—
and travel can spark the imagination with details of life in other places, in other cultures, and at other times.

Here are a few details I collected when I visited the city of Machupicchu, an ancient city of the Incas:

  • Architecture: temple ruins with smooth-cut stone blocks perfectly fit together and steep stone steps curving upward through the clouds

  • Food storage: storehouses cling to a facing mountainside, where wind kept the food dry and cool

  • Music: Chechuan children play mournful tunes on breathy-sounding zampoñas and quenas

  • Language: Chechuan words click rapidly in the marketplace, speech filled with consonants that sound harsh after the music of Spanish

  • Food: Choclo con queso steams in my hands, corn on the cob in a cornhusk bowl, a drizzle of spicy green ahi topping kernels the size of grapes, a thick slice of fresh, salty cheese tucked in one side

  • Environment: jungle borders the cobblestone path, thick-leaved succulents growing beside a broad-leaved bromeliad growing on a rotting tree trunk, all on a hillside too steep to climb. “Air plants” cling to other plants, to tree branches, even to electric wires in town.

Although I can't travel to my fantasy world, real-world details of life in other places, times, and cultures help me create rich and believable fantasy settings.

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