Raina’s Fantastic Ramblings: On Some of the Limits of Research in Fantasy

“Research, and get your research right.”

“What’s the most recent thing you researched for your novel?”

What if that research is wrong?

This question is posed by the fact that I happen to have some first-hand experience with … horses.

And I was recently reading a book where someone who had recently been turned into a horse (well, technically it wasn’t a horse, but a lot of its abilities and its shape was patterned off a horse) had a blind spot directly in front of it and was struggling to adjust to moving with such a blind spot. This is something commonly believed about horses, and that I’ve read in a handful of books and articles about horses: that they can’t see directly in front of them.

I, having known a few horses in my life, am convinced it is not true for most of them. I haven’t met a horse it seemed to be true for. When a horse is looking at a curious object, something it isn’t sure what to make of and wants to keep an eye on, the horse will keep that object directly in front of its face: I have watched them do this, lining it up exactly in front of their face and tracking with it, moving their head and neck to keep it in that center.

Up close enough, I’m sure they have a blind spot, as humans do, and doubtless it extends a bit farther out than with humans, but I’m pretty sure it’s relatively small – nothing nearly large enough to interfere with their ability to see the ground under their feet. In fact, if you take a look at the size and shape, as well as the placement, of a horse’s pupils – they are horizontal across the eye, as opposed to being vertical like a cat’s – it looks like their peripheral vision should overlap in the center of their visual field. They don’t have anything like the overlap we and other predator species have, but I’m pretty sure there is some. (It might actually be pretty interesting from our perspective; what would it be like to have the cross-over zone be primarily in peripheral vision? How does that work?) Their visual field might have two substantial lobes: and they can’t see directly behind them. But they can see directly in front of them.

What’s my point? That it’s really important for people to get how horses see right in books?

No.

Or that you should never research anything because the research might be wrong?

Not that either. (In fact, I’ve seen some instances of very lousy research jobs that to my mind ruined the whole book – a case in point was a historical fiction where the author clearly either had no idea about the culture of the 1st and 2nd century Christians or did not care, and made it out to be exactly like modern American Evangelicalism.)

Just – if your intuition suggests something is one way, don’t necessarily assume just because others claim it isn’t that way that they’re right and you’re wrong. And if, as a reader, you think an author didn’t do the research required and got something wrong, depending on what it is, perhaps reserve judgment unless you have some personal experience to go off of. Because, while a lot of what’s out there is accurate, not everything is, and it’s not always obvious unless you already know something about the field what is accurate and what isn’t.

Also, bear in mind – people tend to think the experts and the scientists are always right. But if you look at the history of science (think of physics and astronomy), it has involved theory after theory being proposed, challenged, eventually accepted, and then someone comes along who has a fresh view on something – wasn’t that how it all got started? – or something happens that challenges that accepted theory, and it either gets refined, or new theories gets built that might be more or less completely dissimilar to the old one. And people, over and over again, tend to assume the latest characterization that’s faced all the challenges thrown at it so far and stood is true, only to find there’s more to it. Somehow, I doubt anyone has got it finally right now: I, personally, doubt anyone ever will: it will be a journey of finding characterizations that represent more and more of how certain things behave with less and less error, but never perfect.

What am I saying? Just to keep in mind that knowledge itself isn’t a black and white thing. Part of the whole point of fantasy – and, in my opinion, fiction in general – is for our imaginations to run, to a greater or lesser degree and in various ways, outside of the bounds of existence as we generally find it to be here and now. If you want to write about say, life in a desert when you’ve never experienced it, you might want to learn some things about it, and really think about what that would be like, but the purpose of learning/researching life in a desert is so that you – and therefore your readers – can imagine what living in a desert might be like and how it might impact other things. Half the point of fiction is so that we can stumble across something we never would if we were trying to stay strictly true to what we call the factual reality.

And even the instance of lousy or nonexistent research – that, too, broke the whole point of writing a historical fiction, which is to get into the mind, to glimpse the mind of a people with a different culture, with a different background, and to imagine what that might be, how that might affect things. The point is to imagine. So – do whatever research you need to, in order to imagine and help your readers to imagine. But, really, imagine. Imagine. Think, imagine, feel. Imagine how the experiences you write about, the different things you write about, might affect life, how people feel, and so forth.

And, obviously, this is my personal opinion. Other people don’t have to think what I think, or like what I like.

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2 thoughts on “Raina’s Fantastic Ramblings: On Some of the Limits of Research in Fantasy

  1. izaforestspirit

    I agree, research is important even if you’re writing fantasy. For example, I’ve never had any military training but Kiia, one of the main characters of my novel ‘A War of Blood, Mountains and Sand’, is a soldier . Luckily my husband is a active reservist in the Finnish army so I was able ask him for advice when writing about Kiia’s training at the military academy. I used his own experiences of the daily marches, drill and endurance training in my descriptions. This made my story more realistic.

    Liked by 1 person

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