A Beginner’s Guide to Researching Your Diverse* Fantasy or Science Fiction Novel

This month for Fantasy and Science Fiction Month, we’ve invited Asks about writing diverse fantasy and science fiction. This answer comes from writer and DiYA co-founder Malinda Lo.

* “Diverse” = a book with a non-Western setting or inspired by a non-Western culture; or with a main character who is non-white/non-Western, LGBTQ+, and or disabled

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iwouldrobabanktosavemylibrary said: Hi! Thanks so much for doing this. What suggestions/resources do you have for a white writer writing other races? I’ve found the writingwithcolor tumblr, know I need to find some beta readers, listen and process, and do more and more research, but do you have some great resources that are almost sure to help? Especially ones that have intersectionality? Most of my MCs are not white (and I am), so I’m trying to find everything I can to write as genuine a character as possible. Thanks!

daybreaksgaze said: In regards to writing diverse sci-fi/fantasy, how does one go about researching cultures other than their own (if they’re using other cultures)? And how do you know when ‘enough is enough’ in regards to research?

Questions about how to do research are among the most common questions I hear when it comes to writing books based on non-white cultures. Often the questions are like the first one: “do you have some great resources that are almost sure to help?” (emphasis mine) The answer is: no. There is no guarantee that any resources will be universally seen as true and right. The first thing you should do is forget about hoping for a 100% accurate resource. The second thing you should do is forget about the word “genuine” when it comes to writing a character, because “genuine” implies “authentic.” It implies that there is a true way to be something (e.g., an “authentic” Chinese person), and in reality, everybody is different. You should aim to write a character who is multifaceted, complex, and human.

That said, it is certainly very important to research the cultures you’re writing about, and although many writers know that they need to do research, they often seem flummoxed by how to do it, as the second question illustrates. That’s why I’ve put together this beginner’s guide to How To Do Research. It is truly a beginner’s guide, so if you feel like you have a handle on how to do this, the post may not be for you. Toward the end of the post there are some more advanced research ideas, as well as links to further reading.

One thing I want to stress is that this is a long process that takes a lot of work. If you want to write about cultures you know little about, you have to put in a lot of time. You cannot expect to get all your answers from one person or one website or even one day at the library. There are no shortcuts to doing research properly. If you’re not willing to put in the time, then it might not be a good idea for you to write this kind of book.

A second thing I want to say up front is this: If you’re interested in writing about a culture different from your own, do you have any friends who are from that culture? I mean relatively close friends — someone you can talk to about your families. If not, then why do you want to write about that culture? I fear that if a writer has no personal knowledge of that culture via at least a close friendship, they may have a difficult time seeing the culture as a living experience. Research can tell you a lot, but shared, personal experiences between you and a close friend can tell you a lot more.

Because this post is quite long, I’m putting the rest of it behind a cut.

Stage 1: General Research

The first stage of your research is about getting to know the general history and cultural practices of the culture you’ll be writing about or are inspired by. If you don’t know much about this culture to begin with, it’s OK to start (start!) with a general source such as Wikipedia. For example, if you’re interested in writing an Asian-inspired fantasy, you can totally begin by googling something as broad as “Asian culture.”

You will learn within a few seconds that Asia is giant, and there are many cultures within that continent. You will need to narrow your search down by country. Let’s say you’re primarily interested in China, so you then google “Chinese culture.” You might go to the Wikipedia page (there is one for Chinese culture), and you’ll see that there are 17 different subcategories ranging from “Identity” to “Fashion” to (the most important one) “References.” I suggest that if you’re at this general stage of your research, go ahead and read the Wiki page about whatever culture you’re researching. Notice when you’re drawn to a particular subject within that page, and follow links to subpages, making notes about subjects that you find interesting.

Read the References for those pages. See what is being cited, and click through to those other sources. It’s OK to start at Wikipedia, but it can’t be your only reference. Wikipedia’s references are often full of well-researched articles or books that will tell you much more about the subject you’re interested in.

The point of this stage of research is to give you a general overview of the culture you’re researching, all in preparation for diving deeper into the research. You should be taking notes already, brainstorming questions that come up for you, and thinking actively about which subjects seem relevant for your book. This process can take some time, but there’s no hard-and-fast rule for how long it takes. You want to do this kind of general, surface level research until you’re ready for stage 2.

Stage 2: Asking Specific Questions

It’s impossible to research your book properly unless you have specific questions you need the answers to. For example, a question I often hear is, “Are there stereotypes about Asians that I should be aware of since I’m writing an Asian fantasy?” (Substitute any other cultural group in there for “Asian,” and I’ve heard those questions too.)

There are several problems with this question. First, it’s a yes/no question. You don’t need to ask whether stereotypes exist, because they undoubtedly do. What you’re truly interested in is: “What stereotypes about Asians exist?” But even this question, which is a bit better because it’s not a yes/no question, still has a problem. The term “Asians” is extremely broad. As I noted above, Asia is giant, and you’ll need to narrow down your focus. Which country specifically are you interested in? Additionally, what kind of stereotypes are you interested in? Do you mean stereotypes that white Americans believe about Chinese people? Do you mean stereotypes that other Asians, maybe Japanese, believe about Chinese people? Are you referring to stereotypes about Chinese women or Chinese men? What time period are you researching? Are you interested in contemporary stereotypes about Chinese people, or stereotypes from the late 1800s in the United States?

As you can see, there are countless nuances to a question about stereotypes alone. It’s important that you spend some time thinking carefully about what you need to know. You may need to do more general research in order to narrow down your questions. You’ll also need to think carefully about what your book is about, and allow the story to guide the way you narrow down your questions. If your book is set in a preindustrial fantasy world, you probably don’t need to research stereotypes of Japanese girls in twenty-first century Tokyo. You may be more interested in representations of girlhood in Meiji-era Japan.

Once you have collected a bunch of specific questions, then you’re ready for stage 3.

Stage 3: Going to the Library

As I mentioned earlier, it’s OK to start with Wikipedia, but there is no substitute for good old book research. The internet is a vast playground of shiny objects, many of which seem super accurate, but it’s important to be discerning about a site’s credibility. Don’t believe everything you read on the internet! And besides that, there are a ton of references that are not online, or that you need to access through a library’s own network.

So, once you’ve put together some specific questions, take them with you to the library, go to the reference desk, and ask the reference librarian to show you how you can research the answers.

One thing to remember: The reference librarian is not there to answer the questions for you. They’re there to show you how to use research tools at the library so you can research the answers yourself. Those tools include databases of academic research, archives of newspapers, and the book catalog itself. It’s your job to do the research, and you probably won’t find your answers right away. It will take some time.

If you’re a student at a high school or college, you should go to your school/college library first. Many colleges have websites that also explain how to do research, generally for research papers, but these tips are still applicable to researching your novel. If you’re not a student, you should try your public library first. Many public libraries have excellent research resources and can also access other materials via inter-library loan. The librarian can tell you about this. Additionally, if you find that you need resources that are only available at an academic or university library, many public state universities allow members of the public to use their libraries for free. You may not be able to check out books (though sometimes you can), but you can often go to the library in person and read the stuff there. You can google your local public university’s library website to find this information.

Now that you’re at the library and digging deeper into your research, you’re ready for stage 4.

Stage 4: Researching Like a Novelist

Many people recommend talking to people from the specific culture you’re researching, and while this is a great idea, you should not start there. You should start by reading. This is because you want to have a solid background in general knowledge about a culture so you can ask the person specific questions. You don’t want to waste their time by asking general and possibly offensive questions that you could have answered by reading a book.

There are many kinds of books that can give you insight into the way people in a culture live their lives: memoirs written by people from that culture; nonfiction about a culture’s history or culture; travelogues about visiting a culture (but be aware that it may be written by an outsider); even fiction set in those cultures can give you wonderful insights, especially novels written by authors who are also from that culture. On the internet, you might also find personal blogs about a person’s experience with a culture. Newspapers are also a great way to familiarize yourself with a place, and online you can find newspapers from pretty much anywhere in the world. Read their reporting on local news and local cultural events to get an idea of what life is like there. If it’s in a foreign language you can’t read, that could be more difficult, but sometimes there are English-language newspapers that focus on a particular area.

The point is: You want to gain insight into how it feels to be a human being living in the culture you’re researching. Aim for resources that give you a taste of that lived reality, and read more than one of them. You need to develop a broad view of the culture and get a feeling for how different people in that culture experience it differently. There is no single, “genuine” experience. There are many.

In this stage, you’ll also be reading books about other aspects of a culture: their food, religious beliefs, political systems, etc. You should be finding yourself increasingly interested in specific elements that tie into the book you’re writing. For example, if your main character is a pilot (in addition to being, say, Chinese American), you’ll need to research how to fly planes and ships. You may want to read memoirs by pilots, or watch documentaries or movies about flying. You don’t need to know everything about the subject (and you can’t!), but you’ll need to know enough to put yourself in the pilot’s seat (virtually) to share that imagined experience with a reader.

Stage 5: Digging Even Deeper

There are other things you can do to add verisimilitude to your books. Two primary options are: (1) talking to people from the culture you’re researching, and (2) visiting the specific location or locations that are similar to places in your book.

(1) Where do you find people to talk to? There are many internet forums (e.g., Reddit) where you can ask strangers questions about their lives and many obscure subjects. I think that many times asking on an internet forum can feel like a great solution, but keep in mind that you may know next to nothing about the person answering these questions. You can certainly try this route, but remember you’re a total stranger approaching a total stranger for personal information. I recommend only using this method for very specific questions, and then I would try to get more than one person to respond so that I could see the variety of experience and check for accuracy.

You can also email subject matter experts — the folks who wrote the books and articles you read in stage 4. Many academic researchers have their email addresses listed online, and if you have a specific question about an obscure piece of research, you can send them an email asking respectfully if they have the time to help you. Keep in mind, again, you’re a total stranger asking for their help, so they may say no or not respond at all. However, many scholars welcome interest in their work, and if your question is specific and shows that you’ve done your background research, they may be happy to help or pass on your question to a colleague.

In my opinion, the best person to approach with specific, detailed questions about a culture is your close friend who comes from that culture.

(2) What about location research? This is one of my favorite parts of research, because I think world-building is much more realistic when you can describe real places. If your book is set in Tokyo, obviously you could try to visit Tokyo if you have the financial resources to do that. But think more broadly: Maybe there’s an art museum in your local area that has a Japanese art or architecture collection that you could visit.

If your book is set in an imagined secondary world, you have to extrapolate from the real world. Let’s say it’s set in a thickly forested area. That means you could find a forest near you to visit. If it’s set in a castle, there are many castles and castle-like buildings that are open to the public. If it’s set in a spaceship, you might see if your local science museum has a space exhibit that can give you some insight into living in space.

Location research is about gaining a sense of the physical realities of a place so that you can describe it with all the senses in your book. Touch and smell things, sit there and listen to what it sounds like. And always take notes, photos, and videos to refer back to later.

Stage 6: Stop Researching, Already!

When do you know when to stop researching? Again, unfortunately, there is no hard-and-fast rule. If you enjoy research, it’s all too possible to tumble down a research pit that goes deeper and deeper until you’ve lost sight of why you’re doing this research at all. However, I believe that if you’ve gotten yourself to Stage 5 and are putting together questions to ask individuals, you’re ready to start writing.

You should remember that you will continue to do research as you write your novel. Questions will arise as you tell the story, and you’ll need to find out the answers to those questions. You’ll even continue researching once you’re revising the book, and while you’re working with an editor. Research continues all the way to the end, often narrowing down to tinier and tinier questions. What you’re doing with the initial research is giving yourself a strong foundation on which to start writing. Little details can be filled in later, but without a strong foundation, you won’t even recognize when the details are missing.

Last but not least, remember that there is no guaranteed way to know that you’ve researched all possible things that might be problematic. No matter how much research you do, your book is sure to offend someone. This is because human beings are all different. You have to make peace with this. Do as much research as you need to feel that you’ve given this your best. Once you’ve given it your best, that’s all you can do.

There are no shortcuts. Have fun!

Further reading:


Malinda Lo is the critically acclaimed author of several young adult novels, most recently the duology Adaptation, a Bank Street College Best Children’s Book of 2013, and Inheritance, winner of the 2014 Bisexual Book Award. She is the co-founder of Diversity in YA, a project that celebrates diversity in young adult books. She lives in Massachusetts with her partner and their dog, and her website is www.malindalo.com.