Writing what you don’t know can be fatal.
By that I do not mean to advocate that writers may only write what they themselves have experienced, that novels must be firmly grounded in the here-and-no and here-and-now there is no magic, so forget magic, fantasy, forget writing about characters who come from a different cultural background, forget writing about a character with disabilities unless you yourself happen to have that disability, in which case you may only write protagonists with that condition, forget, in fact, about writing anything except strict autobiography. In chronological order. Forget, in other words, about writing anything that you want to write; abandon imagination.
That is not what I advocate.
But it seems that sometimes authors turn off their brains. It must be dangerously easy to write caught up in the moment, so enraptured by a vision held in the mind’s eye that one forgets about those inconvenient little things called facts. Facts that make up a working world. It is easy to incorporate into one’s own writing what one have read probably a hundred times without thinking, even once, if it is probable, if it has any internal logic, if it would, in fact, work.
Fantasy is especially prone to this.
For one thing, most fantasy is based, as if by default, on an imaginary western medieval history. I write “imagined” because the middle ages were not anywhere near as dark as many people seem to think. Mind you, it depends on the nation – French peasants had it worse than English ones did, for a couple centuries – but overall, the medieval era (politics, technology, culture) was a lot more dynamic and medieval people a lot smarter than they are usually given credit for being. However, reading endless works of scholarship requires a lot of time and effort, and everybody knows what the middle ages were like, anyway, so no need to bother with actual in-depth research, right? Right?
Another thing: fantasy worlds tend to stay in stasis. As in, the world has been medieval for about a millennia, and will go on being medieval for another millennia more, providing the heroes save the day from the forces of evil and the world does not after all come to an end. Robin McKinley’s Damar books provide a counter-example to this, as The Hero and the Crown is set in a medieval-type era, The Blue Sword is clearly a Victorian colonial period, and at least one short story is set in modern times. Setting this exception aside, very few fantasy worlds go through dramatic changes or trends, except in the present, which is to say, many things change during the duration of the book, but solely because The World Is About to End Unless The Chosen One Saves Us And Leads Us to a New Age of Prosperity and (Semi-)Modernity After He Defeats The Dark One. And then the world will get used to the new reforms, and cease to reform for about another thousand years, at which point The Chosen One’s great-great-whatevers will have to Save The World Again.
Fortunately, fellow fantasy readers and writers, we have a Guide to see us through this! The Guide is Tough, but I have faith that we will Make It Through the Journey and Save the World, or at least hone critical reading skills and avoid common writing errors.
The story behind The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is that while Diana Wynne Jones was recovering from surgery and looking for something to occupy her hours with, she and Chris Bell screened potential entries for The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, which was being compiled by John Clute and John Grant. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, given the amount of fantasy read by Jones and Bell, they both knew what to expect so well that they found themselves speaking in chorus. Jones relates what happened when they came to the entry for Nunnery:
Then, we said in unison, “Nunneries are for sacking! There is usually one survivor.” And both burst out laughing. I said, “You know, most of these books are so much the same that I could write the guidebook for the country they happen in.” [ – from the inside back cover to the Tough Guide]
She did. The premise of the Tough Guide is that readers are Tourists visiting the realm where every quest fantasy cliche really happens: Fantasyland. On the Tour, Management arranges for Tourists to meet Strangers, eat copious amounts of Stew, see Companions die, face Monsters, and finally overthrow the Dark Lord. The Tough Guide thoughtfully advises Tourists on the customs of Fantasyland, what to expect on Tour, and provides an alphabetical glossary (the Toughpick section) of Official Management Terms (OMTs).
See, for example, the entry for Capital Letters (with which I have liberally sprinkled this post):
CAPITAL LETTERS at the beginnings of words are used liberally by the Management according to Rules that transcend human understanding and may under no circumstances be questioned (see TABOO).
And it only gets funnier. Every time I read the entries I find something new and wonderful, but a consistent favourite is the entry on COLOUR CODING. Each new section (so each new letter of the alphabet) is prefaced by a Gnomic Utterance, with a few exception: H begins with a verse from a Barbary Viking Song, below which is an apologetic asterix explaining that “The Management regrets that it was unable to find a Gnomic Utterance that was suitably irrelevant. It was forced to resort to doggerel instead.”
The entries of the Guide offer explanations for some of the more bizarre phenomenon of Fantasyland, such as the inhabitants’ penchant for cloaks, despite the inconvenience of swirling wet pieces of cloth that billow open in the front; the absence of common illnesses such as colds and diarrhea; the probable reproductive methods of vegetable-like horses (no stallion shows interest in a mare, and no mares come into heat, nor do horses bite or kick); and how the economy works, however hobblingly.
Which is to say, the Guide points out the more poorly thought-through fantasy tropes, which makes it an excellent companion for those who want a laugh, and those who want to avoid making silly mistakes in their own writing. (Or both.)
And, actually, the Guide has its own Companions, two novels set in not Fantasyland but Fantasyworld. In the first book, Dark Lord of Derkholm, the world (which has magic) is being exploited by a businessman from another (our) world, who is running tours very much like the ones that the Guide sends up. The economy and environment are nearly destroyed, and quite a lot of peoples, both human and otherwise, are being killed off, both directly (i.e. in the semi-staged battle scenes for the benefit of Tourists, or Pilgrims, as they are called), or indirectly (the dragon birthrate is declining, for example, and the elves are missing a prince).
The second book, Year of the Griffin, focuses on the long-term effects of this sort of exploitation and pokes fun at the more idiotic academic practices adopted by short-sighted universities. The Tours ended eight years ago, and a new batch of students have come to the university to learn to use magic. Unfortunately, their teachers are largely incompetent, most of the students are hiding from somebody or several somebodies (assassins are involved), and for some, magic is complicated by a jinx. The world may be saved, but, as the students discover, it hasn’t been put back into order yet.
So back to the beginning of this post. Good writing, as the saying goes, begins with good reading. I think it also involves careful thought. If one’s protagonist rides a horse, he or she will need to learn which is the near side and which is the offside, at the very least. If nothing else, the Guide reminds authors and readers of the importance of researching. Of paying attention. Of thinking things through. Librarians and teachers always tell young writers to read – read the kind of writing you admire, the books you can learn from, and anything else that helps you grow. The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is a good place to start.