There is a reason I choose to write fantasy, high fantasy at that, and not other types of fiction (at least not often). The honest truth is that I’m both lazy and a perfectionist. If I try to write a story within an existing world, I would want to get my facts straight, whether that is this world (modern fiction), a far future world or other planet (sci-fi), or this world with supernatural elements (urban fantasy). And frankly, research is hard. I don’t really want to do homework before I try to write a story. I have a hard enough time with the story.
It’s too bad, in a way. I have a great idea for a supernatural detective (who doesn’t?) but I know that mysteries require more research than almost any other form of fiction (at least, for it to be believable). I am a fan of mystery. My favorites are Conan Doyle, Christie, and Sayers. Yes, I do tend towards older fiction sometimes. I remember in one Sayers’ book (Have His Carcase) in which Sayers’ author stand-in Harriet Vane stumbles across a body on a beach. As a mystery writer herself, Harriet is dismayed at her find, not because she’s particularly put off by a grisly death, but because she reminds herself the reason she never wrote a mystery novel set on a beach was because of all the research into tides and weather she’d have to do. I felt a bit of Sayers herself lamenting the amount of research she had to do for that novel. But I believe authors should pay attention to details no matter what world they’ve set their story in. Many don’t do this (“west coast of Brazil…”). Some, on the other hand, go much too far (Middle-Earth).
I do not want to write a novel and have people focus on glaring discrepancies. True, with a bit of Google-fu, I could probably get an idea of the history of most major cities within a hours (if that long). But for the story to ring true, I would probably need more than a superficial understanding of, say, the Napoleonic Wars if that’s where I chose to set my story about dragons at war. Likewise if I have my supernatural detective running down the streets of Chicago, I’d better know what street the detective is running down and the major cross streets and landmarks. True, many readers wouldn’t notice, unless they were history majors with an interest in the Napleonic Wars, or residents of Chicago, but I would know the difference. It’s hard enough to keep a plot and characters organized without trying to remember the socio-political landscape of 19th France or the geography of a major modern metropolis. And if I make up my own world, it means I only have to focus on what I need, and if I do make a mistake, it’ll be harder for anyone to notice. Unless I tons of books in the same world and don’t keep notes (how I envy those who can keep it all straight).
Likewise, though, I don’t want to get so bogged down in details people finish my novel (whatever it is) with a better understanding of the major thoroughfares of Chicago or Middle-Earth than the actual plot. I do like Tolkien, but I’ll admit that I have a hard time getting through the second book of The Two Towers because the focus is almost exclusively on Frodo and Sam walking. In fact, that would be a great title for that second book – “Frodo and Sam Walking.” I really don’t need to know the details of every jagged rock in Emyn Muil that those two walk by. Let’s face it; they walk by a lot of rocks. I’m glad there’s enough detail about Rivendell and Lothlorien for illustrations. But beyond that, I really don’t know about the entire history of the place. By the way, my solution for The Two Towers is to alternate chapters between books 1 and 2.
I’m not saying don’t put any work into my worlds. As I said, lack of detail is bad and probably worse than too much detail. I agonize over names of characters and places and it gets me stuck when I’m trying to write. I have a hard time using placeholders like “Hero” and “Heroine” and “Capitol” as well. Names are tricksy. Like most epic fantasy writers, I really don’t want to have “King Stanley of the Kingdom of Lee.” Somehow, that just doesn’t work (“King Excelsior” would; however). Few characters in fantasy are given ordinary names. Far too often, in my not so humble opinion, they are given ridiculously exotic sounding names like “Lady Eestorothi of Orm’kal’int.” Yes, I can find those names pretty easily by typing “fantasy name generator” into Google, but do I really want my characters to have names like that? So I try to strike a balance by using real, but obscure, names that sound just exotic enough but don’t sound like I’m trying to swallow my own tongue. I also try to work certain meanings into my names, which gives me extra work. And I don’t want my characters names to sound like they were named through some sort of random grab-bag method (I.e., Stanley and his sister Eestorothi).
I suppose if I did try to write a realistic world, I could go the route DC took (and to a lesser degree, Marvel). I could write suspiciously similar substitute cities or insert imaginary places in the real world. After all, Gotham City was clearly a stand-in for New York City, and Metropolis for Cleveland (or at least the original authors intended Metropolis to be Cleveland). Marvel made up Latveria so Dr. Doom could rule a small Eastern European country and made up Wakanda so Black Panther could rule a small African country. I’m not sure I’d want to go that route, though. It might not quite ring true. But hey, if worked for Batman, it might be worth a try sometime.
That’s the long and short of it. I try to write a world with enough detail to seem real, but not so much I or the reader get bogged down in detail. If I’m going to do the research, I’m going to take the time and do it right.