Imagining my own races was exciting and creatively satisfying, as was devising my own world, complete with different ecologies and environments. But both required quite a bit of research to make sure my fantasy world and its inhabitants were grounded in some semblance of reality! Here I detail some of the research I did for my epic fantasy novel Melokai.
Research tale number one: Races and the joy of online research
By far the most research I conducted was for the Trogr race. These creatures live deep inside caves in the mountains to the east of Peqkya. A long time ago I read a story in National Geographic magazine about troglobites and I was intrigued by the animals and fish that live deep in the blackest caves. These creatures are either completely white or have transparent skin, through which you can see the organs underneath, are completely blind and have adapted their other senses to survive.
An image of a white fish with pink mounds where it’s eyes should’ve been, stuck with me and when I came to write Melokai, I thought – what if humans had adapted to live in the darkest caves and never see light of any kind, what would they look like? How would they get around? What would they eat?
From online research, I discovered that troglobites’ evolution had adapted them to cave life in the following ways:
· There’s little food so they have very slow metabolism, are extremely energy efficient and live longer than other non-cave dwelling species – the character Gwrlain, of the Trogr race, doesn’t need to eat much and he is around one hundred years old.
· They don’t have eyes – Gwrlain is blind in daylight, he can ‘see’ in the dark but not as we know it.
· There’s no pigment in their skin – Gwrlain has near translucent skin.
· Troglobites rely on their other senses – Gwrlain has excellent hearing, excellent taste and a heightened sense of smell and touch.
· Many have long antennae or sensory hairs – Gwrlain has very fine, soft, almost translucent long hairs all over his body.
· The caves are very humid, so they absorb water through their skin – as Gwrlain demonstrates when he splashes water over himself rather than drink it.
· Troglobites don’t tend to survive outside their caves – as punishment, Gwrlain is banished and cast out from the caves to die.
This was all very good, and then I thought – but humans would have created a civilisation of sorts in the caves, so how do they get about? And how would they be equal to the Peqkians, how would they defend their home? Could they survive outside the cave, without being completely blind? Here’s where I bent reality and decided that Trogrs use sonar to ‘see’ their surroundings like bats, as well as use their touch, smell, taste, hearing. Cue lots of googling bats and echolocation. (FYI bats are not troglobites because they live in and outside of caves, and are called trogloxenes. So now you know!).
My next conundrum was – but what would the Trogrs have to trade with the Peqkians? Racking my brains, I remembered watching a natural world TV programme (most likely narrated by the legend David Attenborough) where the nests of cave dwelling birds were harvested and eaten as a delicacy in China as birds’ nest soup. With a little rifling online, I found more detail on this practice and discovered that birds’ nests are one of the most expensive animal products consumed by humans in the world. Bingo.
Oh, and I bet you can guess why I called this race Trogrs and their country Troglo…
Research tale number two: Mountains experienced
Peqkya is a realm surrounded by mountains and my inspiration was Nepal. Travelling to that country and experiencing the mountain scenery in person helped me tremendously to imagine the location and write it down. For example, the first time we meet Violya in Melokai, she is in the bamboo forest. I didn’t realise until I hiked through the bamboo in the Annapurna Sanctuary that it grew up the side of a mountain. And the swishing, rustling sound it makes is hypnotising. Secondly, I wasn’t expecting to hike through huge rhododendrons the height of trees blooming with red, pink and white flowers – Ramya walks through rhododendrons at one point.
There are plenty of other small elements in Melokai inspired by my travels. For example, the archways that snake up to Sybilya’s hut are similar to the Japanese Shinto torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto. The lake city of Ujen in Majute is based on my visit to Halong Bay in Vietnam and my descriptions of Ammad wading through sand in the Drome desert is from when I lived in Dubai and went exploring in the dunes right outside the city.
I have been fortunate to be able to travel and all those experiences have helped to shape my writing. And it doesn’t have to be far afield, for example Cleland City in Fertilian is inspired by Edinburgh, with its castle on a hill.
Research tale number three: Daily life, read all about it
Ah the joys of reading and learning! One of my favourite things is non-fiction that teaches me something new. As I was writing Melokai I happened to see a book about Genghis Khan in my local bookstore (Genghis Khan, The Man Who Conquered The World by Frank McLynn). I bought it and read it, sparking plenty of ideas for my novel. It detailed daily life for the Mongolians as well as all Genghis Khan’s battles and invasion strategies.
It was the small details that really interested me, for example how Mongolians made their dome tents and what materials they used. How their horses were shorter and stockier to be able to cope better on the harsh plains. What the people ate and drunk including a strong, intoxicating, fermented milk. As an example, the pygmies drink so much pitfire that they turn and vomit where they are sat and then carry on drinking as it’s a “great honour to be drunk”. That small detail was a Mongolian custom which I thought was brilliant and so included.
Another book I read whilst I was writing was Silk Roads by Peter Frankopan. This book details the earliest trade routes from eastern Europe, across Central Asia into China and India, what was traded and how. It was eye-opening in terms of what else flowed through these routes other than goods, including ideas, diseases, religion, art and so on. It helped me to think more carefully about the trade routes in and out of Peqkya, and what one country might have that another wants.
Research tale number four: It’s good to talk
Talking to people and listening to their tales is a great research tool. For example, my dad proved to have an endless supply of anecdotes. The tale that King Hugo tells to tease his daughter Georgina at the start of Chapter 27 was one of Dad’s unprompted gems. It made me laugh and I happened to be writing that chapter at the time, so it was included.
Dad was also the one who came up with the word ‘peon’. I was bouncing ideas off my mum about what word I could use to describe men who are the lowliest of society and only exist to serve women. She came up with the word ‘drudge’ and then my Dad piped up: “Peon! Like in the old western movies I watch, there’s always a peon.” I researched it and it is an old Spanish word that means lowly labourer or a person with little authority, and was perfect.
So, there we have it, four research methods that I used to inform Melokai. There are plenty more of course, but these worked for me. My first job in PR was as a researcher and I enjoy digging around the internet and searching out answers to questions, but I also enjoy experiencing things first-hand, reading and talking. This essential part of the novel writing process was a joy for me.
Do you ever wonder where authors get their ideas from? Have you ever seen/read/experienced something that prompted an idea for a new world, or setting, or race? Let me know by leaving a comment below – I would love to hear!
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