What does good fiction do? It transports the reader out of his world and into someone else’s. Sometimes that world is fantasy, sometimes it’s not. In either case, that world has to be believable or else the reader will roll his eyes, snap the book shut, and move on to something else.
So, how do we create strong, tangible, and believable worlds that will make the reader forget where he is?
Short answer: Research.
Long answer: throughout the years, I’ve heard varying opinions about writers doing research for their novels. Some have said this: “Of course a novelist should do research. Otherwise how can she know what she’s writing about?” Let’s call these people Team Yay. Often, people in Team Yay spend a good amount of time looking up the things they aren’t sure about or just plain don’t know. Some spend more time doing this than others, but when they’re done they are armed with a good amount of info to add to their stories.
Others have said this: “Why should you do research? It’s fiction! A novelist just makes it up as she goes.” Let’s call these people Team Boo. Often, people in Team Boo don’t want to get mired down in a bunch of potentially useless facts. As in, they wonder what’s the point of knowing a detail that never gets used in the story—if they happen to come across something they need to know, then they’ll will look it up. They are more interested in getting the story written rather than spending too much time gathering stuff they won’t need.
Which team are you in, Yay or Boo? Why? I think neither team is wrong as long as the information you include in your story is accurate. Sometimes a writer knows so much about the story that research isn’t necessary. But that writer still needs to pay attention to the details, and if she comes across something she doesn’t know, I think it’s imperative to research thoroughly. A cursory glance at info can result in a misunderstanding, which can lead to incorrect information.
I think anyone who regularly reads this blog knows I’m in Team Yay. Why? Because I need to have all my information up front before I write a single word. I also think anyone who regularly reads this blog knows that I do *way* more research than necessary. I do this because I never know what I’m going to need, and I like to have a lot to choose from. I’ve also discovered that sometimes research can change my story’s direction. I may think it needs to go in a particular direction, but then discover something that makes that impossible. So, yeah, I’m all about the overabundance of research. :)
But what if you’re writing fantasy or science fiction? Those worlds are mostly made up by the author, and the rules and facts in real-world fiction may not apply. So, how do you create a solidly believable world in those genres?
Well, you still need to do research. There are some rules that apply to the universe that you just can’t get around, like gravity. Or the effects of massive heat or massive cold, the weight of snow and ice, which kinds of stones can create a spark, etc. You won’t need to do as much research with these genres, but you’ll likely need to do some. If you want these details to be different from what we know on Earth, then you’ll need to have a reason for it. For example, if everyone walks on the ceiling instead of the floor, then we need to know why. Saying ‘because I said so’ isn’t going to cut it for the reader (that only works for moms).
For the rest of your world, you need to sit down and define it. How does it work? What are its elements, weather patterns, levels of technology, etc? What holds it together and what can pull it apart? You need to sit down and create the rules that your world abides by, and then hold consistently to them as you write. Depending on where your story takes place, this may take as much time (possibly more) as it takes to research real-world fiction. But if you do this in earnest, you’ll end up with a rich and tangible place to transport your reader.