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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.

DAN KOBOLDT:

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.

And yet.

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.


Putting the Fact in Fantasy: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Read an excerpt. Visit the author’s site. Follow him on Twitter.

By John Scalzi

I enjoy pie.

9 replies on “The Big Idea: Dan Koboldt”

There used to be a wonderful comm on LiveJournal, called “littledetails”. When you wanted to get the details correct in your writing, you could post a question about almost any topic and get an expert reply (or several).

Admittedly, the writer in question didn’t always get the answer they wanted — I remember one writer who wanted to hang their hero up in wrist shackles, and was not happy when I told them that the hero would be crippled in x period of time and dead in x+y period. After all, they’d seen it done on TV soooo many times, therefore it must be plausible, right?

This sounds fascinating! My spouse regularly gets exasperated by inauthentic fighting moves in movies and television, and I have the same reaction when I find anachronisms and errors in books that claim to be historically based, so this book sounds like it’ll resonate with both of us.

Ordered – and thanks for sharing!

Neat! One of my biggest pet peeves in fantasy novels is food preparation. My spouse is tired of hearing my rants when a book kicks me out with our heroes casually bringing water to a boil over a campfire during a quick break. Right. No.

Me, too! I’m going through the series of Roman era detective novels by Lindsey Davis, terrific stuff, except that the author thinks you drive an ox the same way you drive a horse or mule. Not so. I definitely need to put this book on my list.

There’s a wonderful, loving and snarky book by Diana Wynne Jones called The Tough Guide to Fantasyland that touches on a lot of this… albeit with aforementioned snarky tone. I distinctly remember a section about stew…

One of my pet peeves in fantasy–or science fiction, or just fiction, or pictures–is the moon doing things it can’t do. Like the full moon being high in the sky at sunset. Or the thin crescent moon being high overhead at midnight. Or even the phases changing randomly every night, as needed by the plot.

Of course, if the path of light is different in your fictional universe, all of the above could happen. But it would affect a lot more than just the moon!

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