Fantasy is another of those genres where people have said to me you do not need to research that you just make it up. But I believe to write believable fantasy you will need to research the world’s you are creating. In 2017, for the Sept 2017 #191 issue of Writers’ Forum, I interviewed fantasy writer, Pippa DaCosta who explained how her research helps ground those fantastical elements and convince the reader that what they’re reading could be real.
Pippa DaCosta’s five book The Veil series is about a half-demon girl who was raised by demons, but must learn to be human. Through various trials against the backdrop of an imminent demon invasion, she must conclude whether humans or demons are the real monsters. she has also written, Girl from Above, a four book sci-fi series and Hidden Blade another urban fantasy series centred around an Egyptian Soul Eater in New York.
The inspiration for, City of Fae, her adult fantasy series set in London came from travelling on the tube during the WorldCon in London, in August 2013. As a country girl, she’s always found the tube to be a surreal experience, and as the tube train hurtled through the dark, the windows plunged into blackness, she asked herself, “What if there were something out there, peering back?” London itself is such a mismatch of old and new, modern and traditional, that the idea of taking a traditional countryside race of beings – the fae – and throwing them into the city environment, really appealed to her.
Pippa explained she wanted to take something beautiful and ethereal, like the fae, and put them somewhere dark and filthy—really going against reader expectations, hopefully to surprise them. The London Underground is one of the oldest in the world and in some parts you can really feel the history crowding in. It’s the foundation of London, and as readers of my London Fae know, the fae begin to undermine London from beneath.
London has many layers, it’s part of what makes the city so special, traveling from A to B, or marching along the street with only our destinations in mind. Pippa told me she researched much of London’s underground network of tunnels, including Victorian reservoirs, abandoned tube stations, and even a decommissions military bunker that used to be classified. Old entrances are disguised as store fronts. Commuters pass them every day not knowing a network of forgotten tunnels burrows beneath their feet.
The plague pits were a gory and fascinating discovery—such as those unearthed by the recent Crossrail engineering works. The under London is already so alien, that when she stumbled upon these plague pits during her research she knew she had to write them into the second book, City of Shadows.
Pippa revealed she rode the tube for a few hours, with no real destination in mind. She discovered once she slowed her pace and took the time to observe, the tube became a fantastic and interesting place to people-watch. Human beings aren’t meant to be crammed together in small metallic vessels and then dragged through underground tunnels at increasing speeds, but all she had to do was look around and see how commuters had adjusted to the uncomfortable and made it a part of their lives.
“One of the most interesting things, for me, was watching the ebb and flow of people. One time, I settled on a bench—the only person to do so—and watched trains clatter into the stations, deposit their crowds, and thunder off again. That stampede of people came in waves, and once they were gone, the station fell deathly silent again. Noise to silence to noise. Movement to stillness. It flowed in and out. That was something I couldn’t have known or experienced had I not been there.”Pippa DaCosta
This way she picks up snippets of conversations. She said one gem came from two women talking and complaining about how hot the tube was, they explained between themselves that it was because the line we were travelling on at the time was one of the oldest and deepest parts of the London underground. That was a brilliant nugget of information, which went straight into the London Fae books.
Fantasy worlds are grounded in reality. As an author, you can’t just fling ideas together and hope they stick. The world has to make sense, it has to have an order, and rules. Research helps ground those fantastical elements and convince the reader that what they’re reading could be real. Before writing the book, Pippa explained she looks at the world and its rules. Nothing too strict, just enough to start spinning the ideas as she doesn’t want to trap herself in those rules later, she keeps them more like brush stokes than firm outlines.
She revealed her research generally starts with simple Google searches on mythically creatures where she often falls down Pinterest research holes and get lost in all the wonderful imagery. She explained many a fantastical beast has come from browsing the likes of Pinterest. She told me she keeps a document folder on her mac for articles and uses private Pinterest boards to pin research and images of various locations. In fact, creating a new Pinterest board is one of her ‘book rituals’.
“I’ll also look at things like the hierarchy of the courts or military units. Depending on whether I’m writing fantasy or sci-fi, I’ll research the shocking histories of various UK castles and their powerful lords. I find researching worldbuilding is a fluid process, that builds with each new lead I chase down. But, it’s easy to fall into a research hole, so you have to be focused and have a goal.”Pippa DaCosta
Research is the foundation of worldbuilding, and worldbuilding is what brings fantasy realms to life. You never know what little research gem could prove to be the shining star of the next chapter. Give yourself time to get lost down those research holes, you never know where they may lead but never forget your goal.
Pippa told me about a new app coming for desktop PCs soon, called the Novel Factory. It allows you to generate character and plot profiles and link various research elements, including web addresses, articles, images, so it can all be easily found again in one place. She reckoned it looks like a great resource for organising all those plot bunnies.
You can find out more about Pippa DaCosta, her urban fantasy and science fiction novels here:
To read the complete feature you can purchase a back copy of the Sept 2017 #191 issue of Writers’ Forum by ordering online from Select Magazines.
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