Putting the Fact in Fantasy

Three years ago Tor.com published an essay of mine in which I argued that the classic fantasy map style was not something that would be used by characters in a fantasy world. Provocatively titled “Fantasy Maps Don’t Belong in the Hands of Fantasy Characters,” it proved to be the most controversial thing I’ve ever written. The main complaint was that it was wrong for me to think that fantasy should follow the rules of the real world; fantasy was fantasy, and as such it was okay if its maps didn’t follow the rules.1 In fairness, my critics were the wrong audience for what I was trying to say.

They would also be the wrong audience for the book under consideration here: Putting the Fact into Fantasy, a collection of 50 short essays by various writers, edited by Dan Koboldt and published earlier this month by Writer’s Digest Books. The publisher is a hint as to the audience: these pieces are aimed at writers of fantasy and science fiction who want to up their game in terms of adding a touch of realism to their work. Because fantasy is built from recognizable real-world raw materials—horses and castles, archers and peasants, trade routes and languages, weapons and wounds—getting the real-world details right can in fact matter. They can save you from resorting to clichés, and knowledgeable readers from being thrown out of the story by what to them is an obvious error.2

The essays in this book are divided into six parts: history, languages and culture, world-building, weapons and warfare, horses, and adventure (travel). There are enough subjects not covered to fill a second volume: literacy and paper, navigation and seafaring come to mind. An entire section on horses? It’s fantasy, and horses are kind of fundamental. There’s a tremendous amount to get wrong if you’re not a Horse Person. My own resident Horse Person3 is, for example, exasperated by the overwhelming presence of stallions in fantasy—they’re not what you want your fantasy characters to be riding, especially if they’re inexperienced—and several essays cover that very point, so: check mark there.

The essays are not remotely comprehensive enough to save a writer from every possible mistake in the subjects they cover: 50 essays in 350 pages can only cover so much material. They are necessarily, sometimes frustratingly brief: you’ll usually find more material on Wikipedia. (In the pieces where I knew something about the subject matter—usually in the first part, “History as Inspiration”—I knew they were just scratching the surface. Sometimes barely.) For the most part they’re written by working writers rather than subject experts: if they’re short on depth of expertise they make up for it by knowing what’s relevant to writers. Though a few essays don’t apply themselves to the problems of fantasy authors specifically (e.g. Rebecca Mowry’s piece on wilderness survival or Michelle Hazen’s on rock climbing). Also their coverage can be a bit eccentric: Amber Royer’s “Plants in World-Building” is mainly about chocolate.

But what these essays do do is try to shake the writer out of any assumptions they may have had about the subject at hand, to offer them a starting point and some next steps. To say, “here are some things about this subject that you probably haven’t been thinking about but you really should think about.” Or, “You also need to think about this, and this, and don’t forget this”—where this might be some aspect of politics or religion or trade or food or agriculture. Not too many aspects, but enough to serve as a Dunning-Kruger inoculant.

I received an electronic review copy from the publisher via Netgalley.

Putting the Fact in Fantasy
edited by Dan Koboldt
Writer’s Digest Books, 3 May 2022
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  1. On the other hand, I’m fairly certain that there are rules that would matter very much to them if a fantasy work were to violate them: I suspect that anything goes would only go so far. What they wanted was the comforting cliché.
  2. I don’t know what bothered me more about the snake in the first Harry Potter book: the fact that it winked (snakes don’t have eyelids) or the fact that it talked.
  3. Reader, I married her.