The Big Idea: Dan Koboldt
When I decided to write science fiction, one of the things I thought was, well, I won’t have to do a lot of research because I can just make things up! I was, shall we say, quickly disabused of that notion. In fantasy, it’s a very much a similar situation, as Dan Koboldt, the editor of Putting the Fact in Fantasy, is here to tell us.
As fantasy writers, we get to make things up. It’s a great gig, really. We can write a story in a secondary world with elves riding dragons to a desperate battle against the nefarious serpent warriors, and no one bats an eye. It’s fantasy. We’re expected to tell lies.
Even fantasy stories have some grounding in the real world. Characters in fantastical worlds still need to eat, travel around, talk to each other, and fight the occasional battle. It makes sense to give them food, horses, languages, and swords to meet such needs. Writers can get into trouble because these things exist in the real world, and they have their quirks. Without a basic understanding of the topic, it’s easy to make mistakes that will throw a knowledgeable reader right out of the story.
A classic example is the most common food in epic fantasy, the bowl of stew. Countless heroes seem to encounter this hearty meal during long, cold journeys to far-off lands. It’s worth pointing out – especially for writers who may not do a lot of cooking – that making stew in a hearth or campfire takes at least two or three hours. It’s therefore a realistic food for the proprietor of an inn to serve. However, an army on the march would probably not devote three hours to food preparation, so stew would not be the most realistic meal.
We’ve all read fantasy tales with unrealistic elements. There are soldiers eating stew, horses galloping for hours at a time, and teenagers who master sword fighting in a week. In fairness, most fantasy writers are not horse-owning historians who minored in fencing. I’m certainly not. However, I am a bowhunter who spends a lot of time in the woods. And for some reason, the forests of fantasy literature are nothing like the places I know in the real world. A few years ago, I even wrote a blog post, 10 Things Writers Don’t Know About the Woods, in which I griped about some books and movies that featured woefully inaccurate woodland scenes. Soon after that, I wrote an essay contrasting medieval and modern archery, again drawing on my experience as a lifelong archer.
With those two posts I exhausted the limited expertise I could share with other fantasy writers. Yet there were so many aspects of fantasy worldbuilding about which I knew very little. So, I began inviting historians, linguists, martial artists, and other experts to my blog to discuss various topics relevant to fantasy writing. It was enormously educational for me. For example, I learned from equestrian Amy Perkins-McKenna that the joint between the upper and lower bones of a horse’s hind legs is called the hock. I found out from martial artist Eric Primm that in a knife-fight between two highly skilled opponents, everyone gets cut and they might both end up dead. And I was horrified to be told by Dr. Jen Finelli that to save someone with a stab wound in the chest, you might have to stab them in the chest a second time.
No writer can be a legitimate expert in anything. There are too many subjects you’d need to master and not nearly enough time. Nor is it necessary to have deep expertise in military strategy, economics, or political theory to write compelling stories. All you really need is advice from an expert. The purpose of my blog series (and the book that developed from it) is to provide writers with just enough information to be dangerous across a variety of fantasy-adjacent topics. This seems like a good time to mention that I’m always looking for new contributors who have relevant expertise.
Most chapters take a two-prong approach. First, the expert debunks common misconceptions that they see in books, television, and movies. For me, in the archery chapter, it concerns the amount of upper body strength required to even draw a bow that has killing power. Modern bows have a draw weight of fifty or sixty pounds (equivalent to lifting that weight with one arm). Historical weapons had even higher draw weights. Thus, I take issue when I read about a ninety-pound teenager using a longbow.
In the second part of the chapter, experts share some advice for getting the details right. Essentially, this part answers the question, how can I write about this and sound like I know what I’m doing? Most of my book’s contributors are writers themselves; they understand the need very well. They provide the basic facts and terminology to convince a discerning reader. In my discussion of archery, for example, I mention that one of the most difficult skills required for accurate shooting is judging the distance to a target. A character who gauged distance before shooting a bow would come across as realistic to me.
It’s surprising – and perhaps a little bit frightening – how competent you can make yourself appear with just a little guidance from a real-world expert. The best part about it? Once you’ve convinced discerning readers that you’re really an expert, it frees you up to tell even more lies.