I’ve always been fascinated by how people approach their research for writing fiction, and who better to ask, than a fantasy writer? I recently caught up with Victorian based fantasy author, Ash Oldfield to ask about her approach to writing.
NLK: Has COVID impacted your writing? In what ways?
AO: I feel a bit guilty because the lockdowns have helped me get more writing done than I had been able to do in about a year. I have a young son who takes up a lot of my time, and with my husband being home a lot more I find I have more time to write. Even just having a second pair of eyes in the house means I can let my mind wander a little as I follow the trail of an idea.
NLK: Can you tell us about your fantasy series The Rachaya Series? What was the inspiration for the series? How did you approach building your fantasy storyworld?
AO: The Rachaya Series is about a young girl who is half-human half-dragon. She grew up in the human world but always knew of her heritage. However, what she did not realise is that she was also the heir to the dragon throne. Upon reaching her mother’s homeland, Fyrebyrne Island, she discovers that dragons are shadows of their former selves and are in the power of the evil wizards. She determines to return her people to the proud, strong dragons they once were and to rid them of wizard rule for good.
The idea for The Rachaya Series came when I decided I wanted to write a story just for fun. A story for no one else but me. I decided that dragons were fun, so I sat down one afternoon and wrote a short story about a dragon that could transform into a beautiful woman. However, this raised far more questions than it answered, and in seeking the answers to my questions the story of Rachaya revealed itself to me.
In building a fantasy world you need to establish a set of rules for the magic system that you never break. Only in doing this can readers suspend disbelief at unbelievable things. Next I draw a map. I work out how the land is broken up, governed, what religion there is, what the people are like etc. The more you know about your world the more you have to work with when you get stuck in your story. I’ve had a few readers comment about how great a plot twist of mine was, when actually I was just drawing upon facts I had established about my world.
NLK: I know maps are important to you in world building, can you please tell us more about this?
AO: A map helps me visualise where everything is happening and enables me to be consistent with travel times and that sort of thing. A map also helps me understand the landscape, which directly impacts what sort of people and creatures can be found there, what sort of industry there is etc. I am careful when naming towns and cities, too. I like villages in a region to have similar sounding names to each other, and vastly different sounding names to other kingdoms. I hope this gives the readers a feel for the place without needing too much description as I like to keep my books short and snappy. My final step is to work with a cartographer to make sure everything is accurate (and pretty!). I tend to place rivers in impossible places, and my cartographer is very kind and fixes these errors for me.
NLK: I am curious to find out more about your research because I know how seriously you take it. How do you first approach researching a particular topic?
AO: This is a really hard question to answer because I’m constantly reading up on topics that interest me, filing facts away in my mind in case they come in handy later. I particularly like mythology, and I read as widely as I can on this topic as possible. I also love history and read a lot on this too. I study at least one online course through the website Coursera a year (my current one is about the origins of civilization in the Mediterranean), as well as podcasts and the occasional documentary. None of this forms a story, though, it just informs my stories later. This is research for the love of fact-finding itself and I would do it whether I was a writer or not.
When it comes to targeted research for a story I start with a single character, who usually walks into my head and refuses to leave until I write down their story. For The Rachaya Series this character was a minor character called Adara, who was the mother of Rachaya. She could transform into a monstrous dragon and back again at will. This begged the question – how on earth did she learn how to do that? How does a dragon learn how to dragon – do they learn at school, or do they learn at their mother’s knee? This led to me reading absolutely everything I could get my hands on about dragons. There is no single agreed upon version of a dragon, and almost all cultures across the world had dragons of some sort in their mythos. First, I wrote passages of descriptions of dragons from fiction into a notebook. This helped me gain a picture in my head of what I meant by the word ‘dragon’. I then made a trip to my old university’s library and read journal articles and text books, and I trawled through the internet to find mythologies about the type of dragon I wanted to write about. I also studied animal anatomy at uni so I went back to my old textbooks and studied the wings of bats versus birds, the receptors in shark skin, and the bone structure of all vertebrates (because dragons are actually physically impossible as they have 6 limbs instead of the usual 4 and I needed to reconcile myself to this fact).
That was just the beginning, before I even knew what the story was, and I spent many happy months just reading and note taking.
NLK: How do you know when to stop researching?
AO: There’s a feeling I get when I just have to write. This does not mean my research is over, just that the research I have done has formed the idea well enough that I can see the bare bones of a story. Any gaps in my knowledge are entered into the rough draft as a blank line so I can just get the story written. Once I have completed my first draft I go back to my research before I do a full rewrite of my story. I also have a beta reader who knows all things fantasy fiction who fact checks for me, as does my lovely editor. The research only stops once my book is at the printer.
NLK: How do you organise your research material?
AO: I don’t! Considering how systematic I am with my research I am terrible at documenting it. I have non-fiction books full of post-it notes strewn all over my house that I won’t allow anyone to move in case moving them interrupts my train of thought. I have a word document full of images and rough notes of what each image represents, I have a container of index cards with character facts on them, and I have several precious notebooks with facts scribbled into them. I rely heavily on my memory for everything I learn while researching (once I have written something down I rarely forget it). I keep promising myself I will organise my notes better next time…
NLK: Can you please share three of your most interesting research stories?
AO: Pyrrhus of Epirus tried to sneak an elephant through the gates of Argos but, with a huge tower on its back, the poor creature got stuck. Alerted to the attack by the ensuing ruckus, an old lady threw a roof tile out of her window, hitting Pyrrhus on the head and killing him.
When Napolean Bonaparte invaded Egypt he took a team of scientists with him. They were the first ever Egyptologists, studying Ancient Egypt in a systematic way. Even after the French army left, the scientists stayed. It is this team that found the Rosetta Stone and is the reason there are so many Egyptian artefacts in France.
Spartan women were treated better than many women at the time. They did not get married super young, they received the same food rations as men, and they were educated as much as the men were.
NLK: What has been your biggest writing achievement to date? What are your hopes for the future?
My greatest writing achievement was completing Fyrebyrne Island, book 1 of The Rachaya Series. I had started and stopped so many novels up until that point. Finally finishing a novel was the hardest and greatest thing I have ever done. I have now completed the entire series (book 3 is ready to go to my editor) and my plan for the future is to venture into epic fantasy fiction next.
NLK: What book would you recommend for people to read during COVID?
AO: I recently read The Girl With The Louding Voice by Abi Dare. It really put things into perspective for me and made me realise that, even though I am back in lockdown where I live, at least I live in a country where I was not sold to a man four times my age, am not regularly beaten in my place of employment, and have pretty good access to food.
About Ash Oldfield
Ash Oldfield is a fantasy fiction and children’s writer from Melbourne, Australia. She is the author of The Rachaya Series and has several short works of fiction in various publications. She is also the co-host of The Book Stash, a podcast about reading and writing.
When she is not working on her latest piece of fiction, Ash enjoys drinking good coffee, taking her dog for walks on the beach and hanging out with her two cats.
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