Anna Stephen’s latest novel, The Jaguar Path, is out now from Harper Voyager (read our review here), and we’re very excited to be sharing this exclusive article about her research for the series with Grimdark Magazine readers.
How to Research by Anna Stephens
One of the most freeing things for an author of speculative fiction is their ability to create entire worlds, societies and magic systems from scratch. They can build their own universe, as well as the characters who move through it, making up their own rules as they go. And yet, the amount of research into real world topics required to craft these unique locations can be enormous. Anna Stephens takes us through some of the topics they researched for the Songs of the Drowned trilogy, a world of monsters, magic, jungles and complex societies, to highlight the many and varied areas of knowledge needed to craft an epic fantasy trilogy about empire-building and the legacy of colonialism.
When I started thinking about the concepts and themes for the Songs of the Drowned trilogy, I knew I wanted to do something different and bigger compared with the Godblind trilogy. A totally different world, with a different environment for my characters to navigate and move within. But more than that, I wanted to explore bigger and more important themes. The Godblind trilogy was a sort of trial run in that I touched on ideas of conquest and enslavement, while in the Songs of the Drowned they are the central pillars of the narrative. This immediately presented me with three avenues of research, each of them daunting but vital: a place, with all its attendant flora, fauna, weather, geology, geography and how people lived and moved within it; colonialism, empire, conquest, politics and resistance; and enslavement, prejudice, and why and how people can come to believe it’s right that they “own” others. It was a big decision to tackle subjects with such a difficult and traumatic legacy for much of the world, so I needed to approach it with the right mindset and make sure that I researched, explored and learned as much as I could before I ever started writing. Some people research alongside writing, and I did that as well, but I gave myself about eight months of solid research on the above topics – and approximately eleventy billion other things – while making detailed notes on character and plot ideas first.
First of all, I did a few solid months on worldbuilding while I let ideas for the story itself bubble away in my subconscious. I’d chosen an environment purely based on a dream I had, though all I could remember of it was an image of bare feet standing in rich black soil surrounded by verdant greenery. This told me my environment was hot, possibly tropical, and rich in plant life. I was intrigued by why the person didn’t have shoes on – and they, of course, ended up being Xessa, the deaf eja who works with her service dog Ossa to kill the Drowned and bring water to the Sky City. Worldbuilding is something I really enjoy doing – I’ve even produced an online course about it – and I took a far more structured approach to creating the peninsula of Ixachipan than I ever did with Rilpor and its neighbours, which grew organically over the decade and a half from first draft to publication. That said, it didn’t originally begin as a peninsula. I wondered if it might be more land-locked than just having Barazal as a neighbour, and my editor at the time, Jack Renninson, suggested making it a peninsula for the very simple and compelling reason that I then didn’t have to worry about any other neighbouring lands and people. There are already enough within Ixachipan itself, after all. A good editor is worth their weight in gold and that was a brilliant suggestion. It also meant that, although Ixachipan itself is pretty big, there was a feeling of claustrophobia for the Tokob and Yaloh as the last free peoples outside the Empire of Songs. There was nowhere for them to go and no one left who would help them, which directly impacts the narrative.
Once I’d chosen a rainforest/limestone/hilly/monsoon-driven world, I decided to do a deep dive into Mesoamerican civilisation. I spent a good four months reading up on Mayan, Aztec and Nahua-speaking peoples. This covered all aspects of civilisation including architecture, agriculture, religion, travel, social systems, government and laws and punishment, diet, currency, clothing, and more. I wanted Ixachipan to have the look and feel of Mesoamerica without being directly lifted from a historic and still-living culture, so there were some things I researched so that I could be sure not to use them. The biggest element of Mayan culture I made sure to understand so I could exclude it was the religion. I didn’t want to take an existing religion and jam magic and monsters into it, because I didn’t know what harm that might do. Instead, I crafted a religion (or two) from scratch that worked with the environment and the seasons and gave primacy to the magic and the abilities/creatures/spirits that lived within or utilised that magic, and then adapted Mesoamerican culture to stitch it all together into something familiar but also its own unique thing. The sanctity of time and calendrical systems to the Maya was also something I wanted to nod towards without using their actual calendar(s), which is why I generally stuck with the idea of seven-day weeks and 30-ish-day months, whereas the Mayans had 18 months of 20 days (360 days) and then five ‘left over’ days that were tacked on to the end of their solar calendar. They also used a sacred calendar of 260 days, being 13 months of 20 days. And then, of course, they had the Long Count, one cycle of which came to an end on 21 December 2012 (hence the many doomsday prophecies and that terrible, terrible film that all became popular in the run up to that date). Like a fool, I decided to use the movements of Venus to show the passage of time and, let me tell
you, whether Venus is showing as the morning or the evening star or is absent from the sky means absolutely nothing when you’re trying to work out when the rainy season should begin. I spent more time than I care to remember doing fucking maths while writing this trilogy.
While all this was happening and I was making choices about measuring distance, the passage of time, what is used as currency, I was also developing the Empire of Songs and fleshing out the main arc of the story – conquest, glory, religious supremacy – and the peoples determined to maintain their autonomy. I wanted this to be more than just a trilogy of war books – the war is the backdrop against which the politics, crimes and atrocities play out and they need to play a larger part than the actual fighting.
This was the part I was most concerned about. Being respectful to the cultures inspiring my world was crucial; understanding colonialism, empire-building and notions of superiority based on blood and blood purity was likewise incredibly important. This was my third strand of research and I’m lucky enough to be friends with some very clever people and authors, and I asked them first for recommended reading. That gave me a broad basis to
work from, and from there I moved into much more specific territory: what post-colonialism could look like, the generational trauma of enslavement, how politics and religion and so-called science played their parts in white supremacy, racism, and ‘justifications’ for the enslavement of people. And, of course, the stories and history of enslavement itself.
There’s always more to learn, and with big themes like these, you can’t cut corners. But at the same time, there has to come a time where you stop the reading and start the writing. In my case, I didn’t quite stop the reading, so there were several times during the drafting of The Stone Knife where I had to make hasty notes for myself and then continue writing as if that snippet of information had been known from the start.
Lastly, in my case, I hired a sensitivity reader/cultural expert to ensure that my cultural appreciation hadn’t become appropriation. He was also an author of translated myths and histories of the Nahua-speaking peoples, and his book Feathered Serpent/Dark Heart of Sky is excellent and eye-opening at the same time.
The Songs of the Drowned was a big and intimidating project I’d set myself, and I regretted it immensely at times, but I’m so pleased I decided to push myself to write this trilogy. I’ve grown as a writer, both in craft and worldbuilding ability, and I’ve definitely learned more about world history
and the specific evils of imperialism.
My advice to anyone thinking they might not have the skills or knowledge to tackle a big story is: do it anyway. Give yourself the time to do the research and be as thorough as you possibly can be. There’s always more to learn and even if all of it doesn’t end up in the book, it forms a broader understanding for you as a person and helps you curate the choices you do make. With worldbuilding, you can start literally from the ground up – what is the earth like beneath your characters’ feet? This determines the richness and type of flora and fauna, which can affect the weather systems and how your characters live and thrive or merely survive. Landscape determines threats that may have nothing to do with other characters, and from there you layer up your knowledge of the environment to people, cultures, civilisations – all of which shape your narrative. Take the same approach to your themes. Build on your foundations and make sure you have solid, broad knowledge, and then get more specific afterwards. Specialise. Diversify. Fall down the rabbit holes and clamber back out. Ask for help, have difficult conversations with clever people – and pay them for it! – hire experts, and do your best.
As writers, we can only ever write to the level of our experience, knowledge, and imaginations. As long as we’ve done everything we can to understand the topic we’re writing about, and have done the research and utilised experts’ input where possible, then we can be confident that we’ve produced the most accurate, in-depth, realistic and respectful narrative we can for the writer we are at that time.