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Sunday, 27 August 2017

Researching a story, and how Wikipedia helped me

Writing fantasy and science fiction may seem like the easy get-out clause for creating detailed settings and such - I mean you could just make things up on the fly. How wrong you are. In even the most fantastic worlds, you must do some degree of research, otherwise your work just comes off as the meanest kind of fantasy. Once I didn't research, but now I do. Obsessively in some cases. And I have Wikipedia to thank.

Back when I was in my mid teens, I didn't think that much about what was real or possible, only what I wanted to create. The laws of nature and physics meant nothing to me. But then I got interested in Wikipedia, in creating and maintaining articles on subjects that interested me. And that was when I learnt about references, finding sources and backing up the statements within articles. Over five years of writing for Wikipedia alongside my normal writing work, I've created six Featured Articles, over seventy Good Articles, and contributed to a number of other collaborative projects within that space. And all of that work taught me about research. It got me interested in creating a solid foundation for my work that people could properly relate to. That was when my writing truly began to grow.

My approach now is to create realism in my fiction whether it's fantastical or not, something I know several other writers have done successfully. If it's based in history, I research the period it's set in, or the culture I'm emulating. If it's adventure, I don't bend the laws of physics to suit circumstances or contradict my earlier statements on something for dramatic effect. If it's fantasy, I make sure the surrounding culture doesn't look like something from the dark dreams of a Lovecraft or a Cussler, but instead is a grounded society with structures and beliefs we can all relate to. If its science fiction, I make sure the technology is believable even in its most hyper-advanced forms, and if there are aliens I try not to fall into the trap of making them too humanoid so people in rubber suits can play them.

Sometimes online research is enough, with scouring of the internet to find information on different cultures and new technologies. Other times I've needed more traditional books. I recently purchased a book on Edward III to properly write about some of the background stuff in my latest in-progress work, a story that weaves a conspiracy-laden adventure with real history - the main different from Dan Brown's work is that my societies are purely fictional but built upon the firmest foundations of history and human nature. Yes, the Illuminati existed in this world, but they did actually get destroyed in the 1780s, and they were never about controlling the world - they were a group pushing for wider education and enlightenment in a conservative and Church-controlled Bavaria.

In fantasy, there can be a tendency to go to extremes because a setting allows it. While I'm guilty of that to a degree, I also use history and humanity as a reference. There is never just one side to a story; even the worst tyrant has a reason for their way of thinking, a catalyst that set them upon this path. There are no heroes, no villains, only people whose views of the world are at odds. Similarly for my science fiction, it's based around realism in technology, possible or even mildly probable courses that humanity could take, ways in which the world stage could change. Humans are weak-willed and can bicker, but they are also strong and can help each other. This dual nature isn't something to be smoothed over or exasperated, it's something to accept and use.

None of this might have happened by this stage without Wikipedia and its focus on sources. I've had to be strict with myself and some of my wilder ideas. But then I do the research, and see how I can do something even grander or more shocking to the reader while still staying firmly within laws and concepts of the real world. No need to bend the rules for drama's sake. The rules help magnify the drama playing out before you.

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