When I first started reading fantasy written for adults, I was that age we now refer to as ‘tween’ (at the time, we called it ‘pre-teen’). My tastes were unsophisticated, though I had a grammar nazi’s red pen already in my head. I never noticed the wild inaccuracies in the depictions of pseudo-medieval life, and they weren’t important anyway. Who cares how sanitation worked when the heroes need to get the MacGuffin to save the world and are only stopping at that inn to lick their wounds for a couple of days before setting out again?
Yet, these tiny details seeped into my head and I absorbed them as facts, largely because I’m kinda lazy when it comes to research. If I don’t really need to know without a doubt that something is factually correct as it relates to history that informs my fiction writing, I make stuff up. Most of the time, I try to use logic to determine what to make up. Back before the internet, when we raised dinosaurs as pets and walked uphill both ways to school while barefoot in the snow, I rarely made the effort to haul my butt to the library for this kind of fact-checking, and only came across such things by accident.
Now that I’m a Genuine Fantasy AuthorTM, I’ve noticed that some of my assumptions are not, in fact, always accurate. Or, maybe they are, but I don’t understand why and therefore can’t carry them through to other aspects of my characters’ lives. For example, a few years ago, I accidentally discovered something that I already knew: it was extremely unusual for people to eat raw vegetables. I’d assumed this was about poverty and perishability. After all, they didn’t have refrigerators.
As it turns out, the primary reason really had nothing to do with either. You see, they used human and animal waste as fertilizer. The food from the plants was considered unclean as a result of this, and someone decided that you ought to boil vegetables to death before eating them. That fact blew my mind at the time, because it challenged all kinds of stuff in my brain about Western European medieval behavior and culture (that’s what a significant portion of English language fantasy is based on, of course).
I now find myself thinking much too hard and long about stupid details like that. Mushy vegetables need to be gross for the right reasons, dammit! Also, it appears they sort of understood that boiling water made it less likely to cause sickness, which is all kinds of interesting, since hand-washing didn’t catch on until the early 20th century.
The things we learn while reading books. And writing them.
So true! Research takes half the fun out of the fantasy, but it’s important to know what historic accuracies you’re ignoring when you are writing (Just joking. Really.)