I've never been a research buff. I've always fancied that, in Fantasy at least, the author's mind should be sufficient to provide details in the world they themselves made. (Makes sense right?) Well, not so much. recently I've been taking advantage of research more, and I wish I had started earlier. First though, let me define research, as there are two parts in my opinion. First, what most people think of: basic fact finding such as discovering the different parts of a horse's saddle, looking up what different metals were used in weapons in medieval societies, or the names of the individual pieces in a set of plate armor, etc. Second, there's the research for story, character, and setting ideas (this one is especially important).
It's true that an author can invent most anything they want to, and a really smart author can bluff their way through many details, or just make them up on the spot. Writing in extreme High Fantasy makes this easier than say, modern crime thrillers, but for those of us who want to ground our fantasy world closer to home, we need to introduce some solid facts to forge that link. For instance, back when I first started The Sometimes Sword, I knew I wanted to have a horse in there somewhere, but knew nothing about them. Not wanting to treat a horse like a motorcycle (as Howard Taylor of Schlock Mercenary fame phrases it in several Writing Excuses episodes), I had to find out something about them. What do they eat? How much do they eat? How fast can they run, and for how long? Do my characters need to worry about the cost of maintaining their mount? Do they sleep standing up or laying down? These things were important. Even though the story I was writing might have been okay without them, I knew I needed to have those details to give it a sense of reality. So I jumped on the Internet (yes, it really is that easy) and looked up a few reputable sites dedicated to caring for horses and began to read. Truth be told, it ended up being pretty dang interesting all by itself. I took some notes and added a few bookmarks.
I've done the same with pieces of armor, and terms for different weapons and styles of swords. These details, when integrated seamlessly into your story, help to flesh the world out, and give the illusion that you really know what you're talking about. After all, telling a story is all about creating illusions, because an effective one hides everything that doesn't make it into the book, along with any failings the author might have in say, horsemanship.
The other kind of research is a little more involved, and ultimately, serves a story better than fact-finding alone. I'm talking about using the world's thousands of stories as an inspiration for yours. There's a lot more of this than we realize, even from the greats: Lloyd Alexander's Horned King came from an old legend in Ireland (I think) about a spectral hunter with antlers on his head called Herne the Hunter (much of his world is loosely based on Welsh legends). Banshees in countless tales come from another set of Irish legends. Sherlock Holmes's(?) case "The Hound of the Baskervilles" is based on the legend of the Beast of Bodmin Moor. Nearly any modern witch you read about has some characteristics tie back to Black Annis, the English legend of a witch in Cornwall. (Feel free to correct me about these facts or add to them, I haven't actually done research for this blog article, pathetic I know.) J.K. Rowling with Harry Potter and Brandon Mull with Fablehaven use countless fairy tales and mythical creatures from our world to fill their own.
Don't be afraid to do some searching. Need a crazy creature to put your reader at unease? Look no further than the some of the anal-fixated monsters in South America and some of the American islands, or the old crazy stuff Japanese freak the crap out of their kids with. You can find legends about everything: kings with curses, sorcerers who turn people into animals, witches who eat children, demons in disguise, etc. Now, I'm not saying you have to lift details straight from them (though you definitely can) or that you have to base your story on an existing legend. What you can do though, is research these things to give yourself a kick in the pants, or to find something that sets a spark in your brain. When you feel completely squeezed dry of creativity, it helps to take some time looking for stories that intrigue you, then determine what qualities made them stick out, and convert them to something you can use. (I know I've always been fascinated with the old school creepy stuff, hence all the talk of witches and old Irish legends.)
I'm currently doing this for The Sometimes Sword, and I'm finding that so far it's helping to pump some excitement back into the writing process, along with informing some changes to fundamental characters. So next time you sit down to write and feel a little bored, think about doing some research to liven up your story and increase the illusion of reality.