There’s a misconception that if you’re writing fantasy, you don’t need to do much research. I call bull.
Granted, a lot of the well-known fantasy stories are sourced from European culture, so people tend to copy what they’ve seen elsewhere and incorporate that into their own. Kingdoms, vaguely-British agricultural villages, dragons and elves and other fantastical races that look just like they do in all the other books, etc.
I wanted to do something different. I wanted to write a fantasy story unlike any I’d seen in the cultural zeitgeist. So I wrote a Mesopotamian fantasy story.
Mesopotamia, otherwise known as Sumer or ‘that strip of land between the Tigris and Euphrates‘ or where present-day Iraq is, has always been one of my favorite historical eras. It’s the birthplace of civilization, where so much knowledge and mysticism and science was born. Where the foundation the world we know today was lain.
There was just one problem: I didn’t know enough about the area. Sure, I’ve been passionate about it since I was young; I’d read the Epic of Gilgamesh and the Descent of Inanna and the Enuma Elish, but there was so much more to learn and I wasn’t an expert by any means. (I’m still not.) I wanted to know about the day-to-day life, the architecture, the laws. So I dove right in.
Step 1: Go to the Local Library
I went to my local library and found a list of every book with the words “Mesopotamia” or “Sumer” in the title. After reading the descriptions and narrowing down my list, I left the library with eleven books of information to compile and take notes on. (Eleven books that took 3 people to carry out to the car, in case you were wondering how heavy some of these were.)
Step 2: Take Notes and Compile Information
After that, I hit the most important books first. These were Architecture 101, Handbook to Life in Ancient Mesopotamia, and The Art and Architecture of Mesopotamia. I scanned pages, I took pictures of diagrams, I read hundred upon hundreds of pages. I gathered information on the education system, what duties priests/priestesses oversaw, how crimes were punished, which regions produced which resources, etc. Then I took copious notes (maybe too much, even). After my many books worth of research, I ended up with 35 pages of single-spaced notes.
Step 3: Figure Out What’s Relevant
I had a blast poring over these books. I really did. But at the end of the day, is all of the information going to make it into my books? Do I really want to sift through notes on crop irrigation when I’m trying to find something more related to my novella’s content? No. Though I learned a lot, I’m not going to use all of it, and its best to separate the wheat from the chaff early on to avoid complications down the line. Out of those 35 pages, only about 3 pages were directly relevant to the plot of the book. The rest was merely for building a believable world, and so onto a separate note-taking document it went.
Step 4: Incorporate Research into Your Work
This is usually the hardest step for writers, myself included. Research should inspire and inform your story, not show everyone how smart you are. So, I had to battle with myself to construct a world in line with what I’d learned about this region and period, as opposed to peppering the whole novella with factoids and trivia as if I was auditioning for Jeopardy. Readers don’t want a textbook, so instead I constructed the world in line with what I’d learned about the region.
Bonus: Highlighted Facts from my Research
There’re so many things I learned that absolutely fascinated me. In order to share them as efficiently as possible, I’m going to simply list them in bullet-point format below. Comment below which of these you’re most fascinated by!
- There was no concept of prisons or police in the region.
- Temples weren’t places of worship, but rather seen as the home of the deity. Public worship took place outside of the temple in a larger courtyard.
- Priestesses were expected to remain celibate. However, they could marry and share their husbands estate, additionally acting as stepmother to any other children he’d fathered.
- Slaves were commonly used in temples and wealthy households. Some masters apprenticed their slaves to learn a trade or taught them in business. Some slaves could even save money, rent property, and have slaves of their own.
- Men were often captured or killed in war. Thus, if a man left no provisions for his family or they ran out, his wife was free to live with another man for the sake of her and her children’s welfare. But if her husband returned, she had to return to him.
There are a lot of other interesting facts I’ve collected– but those I’m saving for The Stolen Sun and future stories. ?
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I hope you enjoyed this peek into my research process, and I can’t wait to share the resulting story with you. Until next time!