There’s an old saying that you should write what you know. This is kind of true – or rather, it’s true that you should know about what you write. Readers can always tell when a writer isn’t familiar with what they’re writing about, and if something doesn’t feel authentic then it can turn a lot of people off your work very quickly.
However, this doesn’t mean that everything you write should be a thinly-veiled autobiography. If everyone did that, most books would be about people sitting down trying to decide where to put the commas. All it means is that before you start to write, you should make sure you know about your subject.
THAT’S RIGHT GUYS IT’S RESEARCH TIME
Sitting down to research a book can feel like a very daunting task. If you think about it in the abstract it can start to feel much bigger than it really is, and it can be quite difficult to know where to start. However, it doesn’t have to be.
The best way to work out what you’re going to need to know is to look at your idea in more detail. Your story is going to dictate what you need to know in order to write it well, so before you start plan things out about your plot, your setting, and your characters to help you identify where to start. Your research will shape this in turn, and you may find a few of these details change along the way, but that’s just going to make the story feel more believable as a whole.
A couple of things are always going to be important: character details and setting always need to be authentic, otherwise people won’t believe what you’ve written. If your character has a certain job, then you are going to need to know how having that job affects them – particularly if it’s something intense like a doctor or a policeman or whatever. The same goes for setting, even if it’s completely fictional – even fantasy societies still need things like food and clothes to keep them running, and you are going to need to know how that society produces them.
But the genre of your story is going to affect the knowledge you need to write it well too. For example, hard sci-fi usually needs a good working knowledge of physics, technology and other scientific concepts, and if you don’t understand that when you write then all your fictional technology is going to feel a little hollow. You want your fictional spaceship or time machine or whatever to feel real – not like a cardboard box painted silver that occasionally goes ‘bleep bloop’.
How much this technical knowledge shows up in the book is also going to depend on the genre. To go back to the previous example – in hard sci-fi, where the focus is on how the science is possible, your reader is going to expect a certain amount of technical knowledge from the off. In this particular subgenre, the science takes an important role. But for something like space opera, where the focus is more on the stories that play out, you aren’t actually going to need to explain the physics of how the technology works. In this case, broad strokes work a lot better than fine detail. It’s enough to know that it’s there and that it works in certain conditions – your readers aren’t going to expect you to get down to the physics of it. Likewise, if you’re writing a police procedural you should be reasonably aware of what it’s like to be a police offer – which covers all sorts of things including standard procedure, forensic science and the limits of police powers in wherever your story is set. But if you’re writing an amateur detective story, you won’t need to know all that, although you will need to know the basics of forensic science to make it credible.
But once you’ve decided what you need to know, what’s the best way to find it out?
Fortunately, the Internet.
It’s a godsend. The Internet is an excellent place to start, but as always, take what you read with a pinch of salt. As a general rule of thumb, if the site you’re referencing lists its sources and they seem legit, then it’s probably fine for you to use it. But there’s lots of other ways to find what you need as well:
- Libraries and archives: Extremely reliable for anyone writing historical fiction, particularly anything that’s not set in the most popular historical periods (Ancient Rome, Tudors, Regency/Victorian England, and World War Two). Comes with the added bonus of lovely archivists and librarians who will answer your questions, or at least point you in the right direction. Also, sometimes they have cafes.
- Field trips: Very useful if you are writing something that’s set in or inspired by a place where you haven’t been before, as you’ll pick up on a lot of really small details that don’t always get written about. Also you’ll get to eat lots of interesting new food. It’s not the most affordable option, however, so if that’s out of your budget I’d recommend reading through as many travel books as you can get your hands on and killing some time on Google Street View.
- Similar fiction: This one’s great, because what do writers love more than reading? Reading well-researched fiction that draws on similar concepts to your own idea is a great way to get into the right mindset, but make sure you steer well clear of any plagiarism. Always make sure to pay attention to the endmatter, as sometimes authors will list the research books they used there, which is always helpful.
- Speaking to people: My least favourite research tool, because it means I have to change out of my PJs, but by far one of the best. Nobody can give you better info about something than someone who’s lived through it. They’ll be able to tell you details which you might have never even thought of, so if you get the opportunity to actually chat to someone about your chosen topic, grab it with both hands. Don’t grab them though.
Basically, there’s loads of different places to find the information you need to make your book good and it’s not all online. There’s only one golden rule, and it is this: never rely on only one source. You wouldn’t do it for an essay, so don’t do it here.
So you’ve found out what you need to know and you’ve hit the books. Congrats on becoming best pals with all the librarians, but what do you do next? What is the most useful way of getting this information across?
Most of the research that you’ve done probably won’t make it into the final book. It’s like an iceberg – 90% of it is below the surface. So while you’ve got extensive notes and long lists of facts, your next task should be to pick out which are the ones you’re going to use. Certain basics are always going to be in there – such as food, clothing, transportation etc. – and getting these little details right is going to make your work feel a lot more authentic. If you’re writing historical fiction, for example, it’d feel a lot more authentic to get the characters’ clothes and food right than to have them stand around talking about relevant historical events. You might have researched every detail of the Battle of Hastings down to the minute, but if your characters are looking forward to a lovely baked potato when it’s all over, anyone who knows the first thing about history is going to think you’re an idiot.
Once you’ve done your research, it can be very tempting to wedge it all into your manuscript. After all, you’ve done all that work, and it’s nice to have it recognised. However, I don’t think this is usually a good thing. Of course there are certain times in any novel where you do need to impart facts to your reader – any type of hard sci-fi, for instance – but for me, I think the better way of doing it is to use the facts to create a feeling of authenticity. When your research informs your writing rather than dominating it, it feels genuine without being dry. It’s like a really good bra: most of the stuff it does is structural support, it makes you feel more confident, and you don’t have to show it if you don’t want someone else to see it.
I always think that research is an important skill for any writer to have. ‘Write what you know’ is good advice, yes, but if you followed it to the letter you’d end up writing the same things again and again. Don’t let the idea of it put you off – if you work out what you need before you start, and don’t put it all into your finished manuscript, it’ll be one of the most valuable tools you have.
Time to hit the books!