There is a trend in some areas of fantasy toward research and realism, so I want to comment on it. I’m all for it. I love fantasy and I love trying to make my world feel real and present, as if the reader has just stepped into a different place entirely. Investigating the details of Earth’s history can go a long way to help me fill in the details that really make a world pop.
However, I think that sometimes we get so caught up in the history of earth and the way things unfolded here that we forget to consider what could happen. We forget the imaginative spark of creation that is part of what's so fun about fantasy. Understanding the past--and the cultures, nations and peoples that have inhabited it--is a great way to understand how societies have worked here, but I don't think that's enough. If you introduce magic, powerful psychic ability, or even a single dragon, everything has to change. The culture has to change according to the elements that don't exist on earth as well as the elements that do.
We recognize this, to some degree, with fantasy species. If elves live a thousand years, how does that change them? What is it like to live so long? Do they mature more slowly? Do they create fewer offspring? If not, why haven’t they out-populated the other species? If you dig in deep, you can find new answers. You can create species that are as entrenched in their world as humans are in this one, species that never existed here, or species that never could exist here.
Research and invention are far from conflicting concepts. Research makes creating new things possible, too. Knowing more about this world is just a starting point in building a new one, a platform on which to build and invent. With research you can put people anywhere, have species do practically anything. It's only unrealistic if they don't have a reason to be there or the coping mechanisms to deal with the situation they’re in. Those coping mechanisms and adaptations, the way humans or elves or dwarves or flegalbrosts, whatever, adapt to and cope with the situation they're in are, to me, some of the most interesting details of the fantasy genre. (Of course, I love just about everything about fantasy, so take that for what it’s worth. :D)
But it’s not always necessary to be so thorough. Sometimes a single inventive element in an otherwise earth-based culture can light up a whole story. And in some fantasies there simply isn’t room to go into in depth explanation, which can be needed with cultures that are truly unique. The unfamiliar takes more explanation, both to the reader and for the writer to truly understand it. But, regardless, fantasy offers us the opportunity to explore these details.
Fantasy shouldn’t be mistaken for historical fiction. The two do occasionally cross paths, but they’re not the same in and of themselves. Fantasy is fantasy. It doesn’t need to conform to the cultures or ideas or paths of the past unless that’s what you want it to do.
Granted, fantasy is often used as a way to explore past cultures and that can be a great way to build a story, but seeing it as only that limits its scope and power. So, while I’m all for the research and realism, I think it’s just as important to remember the whimsy and magic of fantasy. Even if I sometimes have to stop myself in the middle of my research and tell myself that all over again. :D