Fantasy Writing Course

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  • Pay Attention to Detail
  • The Oxford Professor of Anglo-Saxon Literature
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“It's the job that's never started as takes longest to finish.”
― JRR Tolkien

Pay Attention to Detail

In this section, I shall be talking about three associated traits of an author:

  • Attentiveness to detail – a mindset
  • Research – a skill
  • Organization – a skill


In an interview with one of Jo’s old school friends, Carl Wood, I asked him the following question: ‘Can you think of a quality that she had in sixth form that remains with her today?’

He replied: ‘Her attention to detail.’

We get the sense from reading Harry Potter that if Jo doesn’t know the answer to something, she will research the subject thoroughly until she finds the answer, just like Hermione visiting the library, or Harry knowing where everyone was standing from gazing at his Marauder’s Map. 

If you have watched Season 8, Episode 2 of the British TV series ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ you will see first-hand the lengths that this outstanding author goes to research something of importance.  In her exploration of her family history she travels to France to find out more about Salome Schuch.  Visiting archives and interviewing historians, she learns about the decisions and characteristics that shaped her family.  While Jo recognizes similarities between her own life and that of her great-great grandmother, Salome, we recognize a real-life Hermione who is completely attentive to detail and who misses nothing in her quest for understanding.  

In this documentary, Jo carried an archiving box around that (presumably) contained her research.  This seems to be her method of organisation, as we have seen this in other documentaries too.  The box can be a useful addition or substitute to the writer’s notebook. 

Jo ‘plans histories for all the characters and, although they may not be needed in the books, she files them away using her fool proof system, a shoebox.  J.K. Rowling A Biography

The benefit of organization via box is that all the information can be kept in one place; the papers can be laid out when needed for easy reference, and updated (by replacement or annotation).  But storing information in this form can make it susceptible to loss, and because it’s bulky, can also make it impractical to walk around with.

The benefits of notebooks are that they are easier to carry around, and it is harder to lose a notebook than scraps of paper from a box.  However, on the downside, this information cannot easily be updated by annotation.  You generally have to make several copies of the same concept in different notebooks as your idea/research develops over a period of time and things become clearer.  I generally make a contents page in the front or back of each of my notebooks for easy reference.  I also keep a spreadsheet containing the most important information on my computer.

The Oxford Professor of Anglo-Saxon Literature

J.R.R. Tolkien was a man for whom fantasy and reality were two concepts that were both heavily reliant upon each other, in so much as one nourished the other. Through his extensive studies of Anglo Saxon and Welsh mythology, combined with his experiences of war, he created several works of fantasy fiction that have been celebrated for their depth and intricacy to this very day.

Without Tolkien's academic pursuits and his unabated thirst for knowledge these works could never have been so rich and detailed. We need only look back to his high school days to see how, even at an early age, he was fascinated with language. Not just with learning to speak a language but learning the roots of the language, the origins and the reasons the language came to be.

Humphrey Carter, in his biography of Tolkien asserts that "It was one thing to know Latin, Greek, French, and German; it was another to understand why they were what they were. Tolkien had started to look for the bones, the elements that were common to them all: he had begun, in fact, to study philology, the science of words."

This passion for words led Tolkien to create his own language called Nevbosh, a mixture of Gothic and Norse words. We can see already the influence that Tolkien's education and passion for language would have on his writing in later life. These were the building blocks for the epic journey that would later see a whole world, rich in culture and history flow from the mind of this master of the written word.

While studying Anglo Saxon at Oxford, Tolkien found books on medieval Welsh. He was fascinated and completely enamoured with the Welsh language, as to him it encapsulated beauty. Here was a language that looked and sounded beautiful, regardless of the actual meaning of the words. Tolkien's studies of the Welsh language led him to develop his own private language he called Quenya. Many years later, this developed into the High-Elven language of Middle earth.

After Tolkien graduated with second class honours, he decided to study philology in graduate school. He began to study the works of William Morris, who was to become a huge influence on his writing. Morris was an English artist and author, who wrote and published poetry, fiction, and translations of ancient and medieval texts throughout his life. Tolkien appreciated Morris's aptitude for detailed description of surroundings in his books  and this is very apparent in Tolkien's later work.

For example, Tolkien states in a letter that can be found in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, that he was inspired by Morris's book The Roots of the Mountains in his depiction of the Dead Marshes and the approaches to the Morannon, in The Lord of the Rings. It has also been suggested by Tom Shippey in The Wood Beyond The World, that "almost certainly J.R.R. Tolkien remembered The Roots of the Mountains when he created Gollum".

Tolkien's study of Anglo Saxon runes also helped to create the depth of reality that lay within the fantasy world of Middle Earth. The Dwarven runes that adorn the inside cover of the hobbit can be almost directly translated from the Anglo Saxon runic set. Here we see the combination of fantasy and reality, of education mingled with imagination. Here we see how Tolkien's education was paramount in the formulation of his later works and how his passion for languages led him down an academic route that equipped him with the knowledge and skills, to turn what fuelled his imagination and vision, into the epic prose that we know him so well for today.

Article by Paul Patane