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Writerly Advice – Research is an Ignorant Fool’s Best Friend by Rob J. Hayes

So you’re an author. You write things. Anything really, but I’m focusing on fantasy fiction here. Chances are your internet browser search history (if taken out of context) makes you look a lot like a psychotic caterpillar wrangler with a strange love of carrot cake. This is normal. In fact, it’s pretty much required.

The other day I looked at my own search history and for just one day I found I looked up floral arranging, the exact definition of the word masochistic, the difference between matchlock and flintlock in pistols, lightning, and bread making… The bread making was for a personal reason though. We’ve all gotta have hobbies.

Research. It’s an author’s best friend, and quite regularly worst enemy. The question is: Do you need to do research? The answer is: YES!!! Unless you’re creating a world that has NOTHING to do with this real one we live in, research lends a grounded feel to any book that helps to draw the reader in. And here’s a little hint, whatever book you’re writing has more to do with this real world than you might want to believe. Does it have humans? Does it have gravity? Does it use a language mightily similar to one we use here? If it doesn’t use said language, how is anyone going to read it? Not all of us have the patience to learn Elvish, Mr Tolkien.


So let’s just bite the bullet and say, even as a fantasy author, your world full of its mysteries and magic and heroes and villains, is still based loosely upon this real one. Now as a fantasy author, its always tempting to answer any question with the word “magic”. How does this happen? Magic. How did you heroes just escape the vile clutches of…? Magic. How did that ale get in my mug? Magic. It all gets a bit tedious really. Much better to do a bit of research into the subject and provide your readers with a bit of knowledge while you also engage them in a fantastical story about good vs evil and the mighty chalice of Evermore that grants the wielder… you get the point.

Authors like Bernard Cornwell do this very well. He’ll happily take a page out of telling you about the Viking sacking of York, to also tell you how folk thatched their roofs back in those times. It shows he’s done his research and knows his shit. It gives the reader a little bit of knowledge (which is never a bad thing), and it also grounds the story in reality, even if just a little, which helps to pull the reader in and give them something to hold on to.


I had to do a fair amount of research myself while writing my upcoming duology, Best Laid Plans. It’s a series with a fairly nautical theme… It’s basically about a bunch of pirates. Kind of like Pirates of the Caribbean meets Game of Thrones. So these pirates have ships, a whole variety of ships. Now I could have just made up my own names for them, but I decided some research was probably better.

First, I started with learning the difference between Port and Starboard (or Larboard and Starboard). Then I added Bow and Stern to the list. Then I started to learn about decks; Poop deck, Quarter deck, Forecastle. Then I learned about sails and masts. Eventually I learned about the different types of ship; Galleons, Fluyts, Cogs, Man of Wars. And even some of the terminology used back then. I even learned a few sailing shantys.


I started my research with this diagram.

Before long I discovered I had a fairly descent theoretical knowledge of ships most often seen on the high seas during the golden age of piracy. Now I’m not saying I could jump on a ship, sail the bastard out onto the sea, and earn myself the name Captain Browny-Ginger beard, but hopefully I now know enough not to look like a right fool when writing about characters who do just that.

Luckily for us authors these days, we have one of the greatest research tools ever created available to us. I call it the internet and, while it’s not very well known at the moment, I have no doubt it will catch on soon. The truth is, pretty much everything we as a species has ever learned is out there floating around the net… unfortunately it’s often hidden behind the rest of the shit people throw up in cyberspace such as videos of cats and more porn than is healthy. The trick is not, using the internet. The trick is finding reliable sources of information on the internet. Wikipedia is useful, but never take anything you read on it as gospel. Actually that should go for ALL websites.

Your best bet, while doing research on the internet, is to double check everything. If you read something that sounds like it might be useful to the topic you need, find another site that corroborates the information… and then another.

Now this isn’t a full proof method. You can find any number of websites that claim Velociraptors are alive and well and guarding the remains of Noah’s Ark somewhere in the deeps jungles of South America… it’s still not true. But if you can find three websites that claim the rear most sail on a Man of War is called the Spanker Sail… chances are they’re telling the truth. Use the internet! But use it with common sense.

Do your research. Ground your epic fantasy tale with a firm basis in reality… and then know when to throw the rules out the window and shout “MAGIC!”.

Do you have any questions for me about research or any other writing topic? Ask here or leave a comment, and you’ll be entered for a random drawing to win a copy of the first book in my Ties That Bind series, THE HERESY WITHIN!


RobJHayes200Having served in a hundred different offices as a keyboard monkey Rob J. Hayes finally decided to follow his lifelong passion of daydreaming. After writing a small horde’s worth of short stories, he released his debut trilogy The Ties that Bind in 2013 as an indie publication and followed it up with the standalone release, The Northern Sunrise, in 2014.

Having signed a deal with Ragnarok to re-release The Ties that Bind trilogy, Rob is happy to announce his follow-up series, Best Laid Plans (set in the same world), will also be released by Ragnarok starting in 2016.

When not writing Rob is usually found either card gaming, computer gaming, board gaming, dice gaming, airsoft gaming, or pretending to be a Viking.  

For more information check out his website


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