History and Worldbuilding

My critique partners and I were chatting it up last night and the topic of writing historicals and research came up. They asked me how long I researched before I felt ready to write and I told them not much. I just jumped into the story and researched as I went along. Of course, I wasn’t going to set the stories in China at first.

I suddenly had flashbacks — five years of library visits, trolling Amazon, a gazillion internet searches. I have books on horses of the world, on walled cities in China, on the Tang dynasty, the Song Dynasty. Hours and hours on the Chinese History forum. Wow, now that I’m looking at my shelf, I have books on Chinese weapons, the Art of War and other military texts, Chinese landmarks. And I consider myself a “light” researcher. Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story, I say. (I stole that from my mentor teacher, who always told me “Don’t let the truth get in the way of good teaching” when it came to science.)

Darn, it’s been a long ride. And it keeps going. I’m starting to research Taoism and demonology for my next project. No wonder historical authors want to stick to the same period for a while.

No matter how much you research an actual time, you still worldbuild around it. Or at least I do. Historians do it too. It’s the biased worldview that you start creating based on what you know. I have a loose construct of the regions of the Tang Dynasty mapped out in my head and the political structure. At some point, I have to start filling in blanks and making extrapolations of what kind of situation that would create.

Soon, you find something cool happening. You find that the history matches up with your worldbuilding as you continue to dig. There’s a certain way that empires rise and fall, I suppose. It’s all a feedback loop and, sooner or later, the stuff you’re making up isn’t so far from what could or did happen.

I’m still dreading the day someone smacks me down for gross historical inaccuracies. That’s okay. They would have had to read as much as I have to do it. Anybody that geeky deserves to wield the historical smackdown stick.

Worldbuilding at its best: Interview with R.F. Long


One of the hardest things to do as an author is create a living, breathing world in which characters can grow and interact. When an author tries to force an unnatural setting onto the page, it becomes obvious and the effort falls flat in the worst way. Fantasy author R.F. Long, author of the upcoming book The Scroll Thief, has an amazing ability to spin out magical worlds with effortless grace in every story. I am pleased to have been able to interview her for this blog.

Tell us about your inspiration for Scroll Thief. What made you want to tell this story?

For a long time I was working on a very traditional epic fantasy and associated stories. I love this sort of thing but there are a lot of them around. The Holtlands were born from this first novel, so was my novella The Wolf’s Sister. But one day I was wondering about the other lands surrounding the Holtlands – what they might be like, what their history was and how they interacted with the people and lands about which I was already writing. One of my characters, Bareda, starts off that epic, in Klathport which also set me thinking about what her life was like there. She’s a minor character in The Scroll Thief, but that story was never destined to be her story.

Mdina, the "silent city" of Malta. According to the author - "It captured something of Klathport for me, the way I imagine a once opulent, desert city."

Mdina, the "silent city" of Malta. According to the author - "It captured something of Klathport for me, the way I imagine a once opulent, desert city."

I’d always loved stories like Arabian Nights, spent my honeymoon in Andalusia in Southern Spain and everything started to gel together once I came up with the character of a young thief with far too big an opinion of himself. Initally Malachy was going to be hired to steal a religious artifact by the Mahailian sect, the only way the peaceful worshipers of the Goddess could get it back, but then… well frankly, he wouldn’t take the job. It was going to take a fair amount of bullying to keep him in line. Halia fitted the bill exactly. Malachy’s older sister, the former courtesan and sometime criminal mastermind, was initially intended to be killed off, but my husband, on reading the first chapters, wouldn’t let me.

What was your process for research?
Mainly I tend to look things up as I go along, getting the information as and when I need it. However, because of my great love of the art and architecture of Andalusia and the mythologies upon which I often base my writing, I sort of spend my life in a perpetual state of research. I work in a library, so I don’t find research of any kind onerous. I also really enjoy and make use of television documentaries as a quick way of gathering information which I can later build on. I love Celtic legends particularly, but I’m starting to read up on Norse legends of late. The Internet offers a vast array of information, some sites more reputable than others, so I feel it is important to check the sources and follow up on references. Cross referencing is vital. I have a few books at home which I use constantly – Rollestone’s Myths & Legends of the Celtic Race, Encyclopedia of World Mythology, Everyday Life in the Middle Ages etc. I’m always on the lookout for things like that – books, sites, artwork, music – anything that will provide both research possibilities and inspiration.

Many authors stay in one world for an entire series after they’ve created it because it takes so much effort and research. I’m always amazed, however, at your ability to recreate a world with each new story. How do you do it?

The lost village of Iliz Koz in northern Brittany - swallowed up by sand in the 15th century and rediscovered in 1960.

More inspiration: The lost village of Iliz Koz in northern Brittany - swallowed up by sand in the 15th century and rediscovered in 1960.

Well, The Wolf’s Sister, its sequel, The Wolf’s Mate and The Scroll Thief are set in the same world, but only the first two in the same land. I think its important in any fantasy world that the countries and races are not just carbon copies of each other, or indeed exact copies of our world in the middle ages with extra magic. My forthcoming novel Soul Fire, is set in our world and the world of the Sidhe of Irish folklore. I love playing with new ideas, and with worldbuilding, even at the most subtle level. Whether building a new world with landscapes, history and mythologies of its own, or altering our own world to allow the magical and fantastic to creep through, the key thing for me is a combination of consistency and believability. I always ask myself why a character might do something, and so by extension why a country might have a law banning magic, or why iron might drive away faeborn people. Once I have a reason for something, I make sure I stick to that reason throughout the novel and treat it as a fact of existence, rather than something I’ve made up.

You live in Ireland which to me is a magical place in and of itself. How much does that play into your creative process?

I think very much so, for a number of reasons. Ireland has a long tradition of story telling – you just have to sit down and ask someone how their day has been in order to get a story out of them. Its a recognised entertainment. Ireland’s mythology comes from an oral tradition and many stories, particularly when you reach the folklore, were written down from oral sources and that tone has carried through. “Once of a time” many of them begin, a small step away from “Once upon a time”.

As one of my inspirations is music, particularly Irish traditional music, much of the rhythm of my writing and the songs to which I listen as I write tie together.


Colimore Harbour with Dalkey Island in the background. Dalkey is the author's hometown.

I’m a nut about the craft of writing. Can you give any pointers on specific techniques or devices you use? (Don’t feel like you have to spill all your secrets, just a little hint)

I plan out a plot, but only lightly – no more than a paragraph for a chapter, a line or two per scene. It gives an overview of the story arc, but still allows me the freedom to let the story take me where it will. Usually if I get stuck with a story, I’ve tried to push it in a way it didn’t want to go. I have found that I need some sort of guideline (otherwise the story just runs on and on and I end up rewriting an enormous amount) but it still need fluidity and freedom to go where it will.

One technique I find particularly useful in constructing scenes, particularly in a fantasy setting, is to try to engage all five senses. The human sense of smell is one of the most evocative tools, so if I describe Cerys the healer’s hands smelling of lemons, the reader instantly knows what that is. Some readers will also know of the antisceptic properties of lemon juice, its use in early medicine, and that too is consistent with the character. She has both a reason to smell of lemons, and a scent that readers identify easily.

Following on from that, the same is true of sound, taste and touch – as writers we often overuse sight descriptions, whereas if you take a moment out of your busy day to just stop and experience the world around you, you will hear traffic or birdsong, or a conversation in the next room, of the hiss of a gas fire beneath the noise of the television. You will feel the cushion at your back, or the breeze running through your hair, or the blush of heat in the cheek turned towards the sunlight. You may taste the remnants of that chocolate you had earlier, or the slight aftertaste of berries in a glass of wine. There is more to experiencing the world than what we see. I think its important to bring that in to writing as well.

The vacation pictures were a lovely bonus and they have convinced me that I absolutely must travel to exotic locations as part of my Adventures in Romance. It’s a hard job, but someone has to do it. Thank you for the interview and the tiny peek into your creative process!

The Scroll Thief is available February 24, 2009 from Samhain Publishing. I know I’m clamoring for a copy.  More information about the magical worlds of R.F. Long can be found at: http://www.rflong.com