While many science fiction/fantasy authors think they can make up whatever sorts of worlds they want, that attitude often leads to clichéd worlds that are neither realistic, nor convincing, nor vivid. The secret behind many worlds that are realistic, convincing, and vivid is research. But finding research sources that focus on exactly what you need to know can be a challenge. Science fiction/fantasy authors need to become expert researchers and find obscure texts that hold those precious pieces of information that will make their worlds come to life. So we asked the Odyssey graduates their research secrets.

What are some of the best research sites/books/sources you have discovered?

Amy Tibbetts, class of 2004

Here’s a list of my favorite sources. I write fantasy in imaginary worlds, but my settings are historically based.

I want to stress that these don’t just provide setting details (although of course that’s important); they also provide characterization ideas (i.e., personalities of historical figures, anecdotes of the way people behave) and plot ideas (i.e. wars, interpersonal conflicts).

But use these with extreme caution–my weakness is doing more research than actual writing!

For Medieval history & settings:

1) A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman
2) Life in a Medieval Castle, Life in a Medieval City, & Life in a Medieval Village by Frances & Joseph Gies (very nifty series, and very accessible to the non-historian)
3) The Year 1000 (in England, from the Domesday Book) by Robert Lacey & Dan Danziger
4) Four Queens: The Provencal Sisters Who Ruled Europe by Nancy Goldstone
5) Medieval Travellers: The Rich & the Restless by Margaret Wade Labarge

For Vikings:

1) Cold Counsel: Women in Old Norse Literature & Mythology by Sarah Anderson & Karen Swenson
2) various Icelandic Sagas–most available in public domain

For Native American history, cultures & settings:

1) They Sang for Horses by Laverne Harrell Clark (Navajo & Apache folklore in historical context)
2) Encyclopedia of Native American Tribes by Carl Waldman (new, accurate and user friendly, the best in a glut of confusing/old-fashioned encyclopedias of tribes)
3) 1491 by Charles C. Mann (a must-read)
4) The Comanche Empire by Pekka Haimalainen

On Far East history & culture:

1) Daily Life in China: On the Eve of the Mongol Invasion by Jacques Gernet
2) Three Kingdoms (epic saga from medieval China)
3) The Civilizations of Angkor by Charles Higham (very readable archeological account of the prehistory/history of Southeast Asia)
4) Servants of the Dynasty: Palace Women in World History by Anne Walthall, ed. (a must-read if your only frame of references for Southeast Asia & Indonesia is The King and I!)

On Africa:

1) The Civilizations of Africa: A History to 1800 by Christopher Ehret (this is a textbook, but quite excellent; it’s very hard to find a general history of pre-colonial African cultures)
2) IBN Battuta in Black Africa by Said Hamdun & Noel King (from primary sources)
3) Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali by D.T. Niane
4) Imperial Reckoning
by Caroline Elkins (Pulitzer-winning, very disturbing account of Britain’s treatment of the Kikuyu of Kenya in the 1950s)

On pirates:

1) Empire of Blue Water by Stephen Talty
2) Villians of All Nations by Marcus Rediker
3) Buccaneers of America by Alexander Exquemelin (primary source)

On goddess worship and ancient religions from archeology:

Goddesses & Gods of Old Europe by Marija Gimbutas

General World History:

1) Guns, Germs & Steel by Jared Diamond (vital for understanding why the world ended up the way it did–but I did not like his Collapse as much–too theoretical)
2) Salt: A World History by Mark Kuranksy (and anything by the same author)
3) Color: A Natural History of the Palette by Victoria Finlay
4) Throwing Fire: Projectile Technology Through History by Alfred Crosby

Susan Abel Sullivan, class of 2005

My research is rather eclectic compared to most speculative fiction research since my novels are contemporary.

For the haunted Velvet Elvis novel I read several biographies about Elvis Presley. My favorite Elvis resource was Images of Elvis by Marie Clayton because it had a lot of pictures of Elvis, his family, the pink Cadillac he gave his mother, and his Memphis home, Graceland. I referred to that book often as I wrote the novel.

The novel I’m currently writing takes place in Panama City Beach, Florida and involves tacky tourist traps and were-dogs. A couple of my resources are:
Dixie Before Disney: 100 Years of Roadside Fun by Tim Hollis
ASPCA Complete Guide to Dogs by Sheldon L. Gerstenfeld, V.M.D. with Jacque Lynn Schultz

Lane Robins, class of 1999

I have different research needs for each project, so I don’t have a lot of very firm “go-to” places. But if I need to research something that I know utterly nothing about–I start with children’s non-fiction. Seems weird but a) kids books usually have the very basic information to help me start figuring out where I need to focus the real research and b) in some cases, they’re far more useful than adult books.

When I was doing a short story about gladiators, I found a DK kids book that took the reader through a gladiator’s daily life, down to the clothes he wore, the weapons he fought with, the food he ate, and the care he received after fights. With illustrations. And then, in the back of the book, there was the lovely reference guide which pointed me to other books for more in-depth research.

Scott T. Barnes, class of 2008

I have found museums to be great sources of information. Not only do they have concise explanations and displays for visual stimulation, but their bookstores often have source material that I wouldn’t find with a search on Amazon or Google. Sometimes I simply jot down the book’s publisher and then look on that publisher’s website for more related books. For example, for books about Western Americana the University of Oklahoma Press is unbeatable.

Individual books that I have found invaluable:

Mountain men:
Ruxton of the Rockies by Frederick Ruxton
Wild Life in the Rockey Mountains by Frederick Ruxton
The Journal of Lewis and Clark

The Gypsies by Jan Yoors

Native American myths from the Pacific Northwest:
Indian Legends of the Pacific Northwest by Ella E. Clark
Myths and Legends of The Pacific Northwest selected by Katharine Berry Judson

Myths from Hawaii
Myths and Legends of Hawaii by William D. Westervelt

Writing in General:
A Natural History of the Senses by Diane Ackerman
Science Fiction Writer’s Workshop-I by Barry B. Longyear
Writing Fiction by Janet Burroway
The Synonym Finder by J. I. Rodale
Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language
The Chicago Manual of Style

For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.


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