Write What You Know: How to Research for a Book

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

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WOO YEAH (image: tumblr.com)

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’.

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Such realism! (image: giphy.com)

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.

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Blog post over, everyone go home. (image: medium.com)

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.
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You must reach Santiago levels. (image: tumblr.com)

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.

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Historians will put on their feathery hats and laugh and laugh. (image: pirates-corsaires.com)

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!

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Book Recipes: How to Write a Historical Murder Mystery

I’m back and what better way to celebrate the new year than by going back to an old one. Make sure you’ve had your jabs, we’re going time travelling!

 

Ingredients:

  • One suspiciously ahead-of-their-time detective
  • A team of loyal assistants who can be shuffled into the following categories:
    • Dependable muscle
    • Slightly shady rogue
    • Science one
  • A noble patron who is kind of the boss but can’t say ‘turn in your badge’ because badges haven’t been invented yet
  • Urchins
  • A sinister yet attractive lady
  • Someone who will describe things as ‘most irregular’
  • About a dozen people who are there to show how backwards history can be
  • A couple of well-known historical figures for our detective to chat to
  • One historical backdrop, complete with smells
  • MURRRDERRRR

 

Method:

  1. Unroll your historical backdrop behind our detective. Allow the reader to experience the sights and many, many smells of The Past.
  2. But oh no, what’s this? A crime?
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Dun dun DUUUNNNNN. (image: giphy.com)
  1. Our noble patron tells the detective to solve the murder. We don’t know why they’re in charge of murder-solving, but they are, and they have a special office for it.
  2. Our detective assembles his trusty crew. Time to investigate!
  3. Go to the crime scene and look around, but y’know, historically. This basically means you will have to bribe everyone to tell you stuff and that the crime scene will be in an absolute state.
  4. A sinister yet attractive lady turns up. She almost certainly has a Secret, but it’s okay because secrets are hot.
  5. Introduce your detective to some historical figures. One of them will have an original character attached to them in some way but they definitely won’t become important at around step eighteen, why do you ask?
  6. Find a Clue and celebrate in the manner most appropriate to the time period.
  7. Our detective has seen a suspicious character. Better follow them past a bunch of super-famous historical landmarks.
  8. The Clue has led our detective to another important place! Go there and investigate.
  9. Have a chat with another historical figure to pass the time. The sinister yet attractive lady is there, so make sure you look cool.
  10. Oh look, another Clue! But this one links with the first Clue in a way that’s really weird, what could it meeeaaannnn?
  11. Receive a talking-to from the patron. Drop hints that the king is displeased.
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Hopefully it’s not this one. (image: theguardian.com)
  1. Examine the Clues. Get the science friend to basically recreate a procedure from modern forensics and at last, a break in the case!
  2. But wait! The sinister yet attractive lady has been attacked by ruffians! We must save her, as this completely proves her innocence and was definitely not staged.
  3. Start feeling all tender and squishy. Perhaps our detective could give up this detective business that he’s only just invented and settle –
  4. HAHA IT WAS A TRAP YOU’VE BEEN BETRAYED
  5. Turns out the sinister yet attractive lady has been in cahoots with the original character from step seven all along. It was them who DONE THE MURDER. Now the detective has been locked up or something while they carry out the final stage of their plan. How will you ever cope with the betrayal?
  6. Escape and foil their dastardly plan, that’s how.
  7. Gather everyone including your patron into one room so you can explain how you solved the murder. Receive a tip from your patron, mope a little about what might have been, but then go back home with your detective pals for some period-accurate snacks.

THE END. Serve with torn edges and stained with a used teabag.

 

Tips:

  • Choose your time period carefully. You want a nice big window between the invention of cities and the invention of a modern police force.
  • Make sure your background is really, really gross. Bonus points for every passing character with syphilis.
  • Spend at least the first fifty pages just pootling round, showing your readers the sights. They definitely won’t get bored!
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GET TO THE MURDER DAMMIT (image: giphy.com)
  • Have at least one character addressed as ‘my liege’.
  • Not sure how to solve a mystery without modern methods? That’s fine! Just make your character use modern methods, but y’know, historically. Have all the other characters describe their methods as ‘unconventional’ and all your bases are covered.
  • Anyone who coughs is a goner.
  • Pay particular attention to language. Don’t say ‘hello’, say ‘good morrow’. Don’t wear ‘trousers’, wear ‘breeches’ or ‘hose’. Swear all you like, it’s authentic, but never, ever do it in front of a lady. You animal.

 

And here’s one I prepared earlier…

 

William Fleetwood strode through the workroom doors and threw his handkerchief down on the alchemist’s table. It landed with a clatter. “There,” he said. “Best I could do, I’m afraid.”

Mortimer Banks put on his magnifying spectacles and opened the handkerchief up with a pair of tweezers. Wrapped up in the lace-edged cotton were about a dozen nuggets of misshapen metal. Mortimer poked one, experimentally.

“And they’ve not been contaminated?”

Fleetwood sat down heavily and got out his pipe. “It’s a clean hanky, if that’s what you’re asking.”

Mortimer took off his spectacles and gave him a look. “You know perfectly well that is not what I meant.”

Fleetwood took a puff on his pipe and tried to keep his temper. He took off his long, curly wig, scratched his head and propped his feet up on the tea-chest. “They’re as clean as they can be, considering where I found them.”

Mortimer went pale at the memory. The misshapen metal had been found stuffed into the mouth of Colonel Victor Timothy Gonnairgh – or rather, into the mouth of his corpse. Fleetwood thought Mortimer was being unnecessarily squeamish. After all, he’d given them a wipe.

“I hope you at least wore gloves,” muttered Mortimer, turning back to the metal. “There are the prints of many fingers here…show me your hands.”

Fleetwood held out his hand. Mortimer peered at them and made a disparaging noise.

“Yes,” he said, “I can clearly see the prints of your fingers, but there are others…if only there were some sort of base in which to store all this data. With some sort of searchable engine, the task would take but a moment…”

“Have you such an engine?”

“Regrettably not. Perhaps if my first laboratory had not been burned by that ogre Cromwell and his men – ” They both paused to spit extravagantly. “ – then I might have been equal to the task. Alas, I shall have to make do with what Lord Fitzffortescue affords me.”

“Cheer up, old man,” said Fleetwood, puffing on his pipe again.

“Hmm.”

Mortimer turned back to his bench and started boiling something in a beaker. He started dropping the lumps of metal into the beaker one by one, and then taking them back out again. “Did the maidservant say anything useful?”

“Not a jot,” said Fleetwood. “Dreadfully upset, wonderful employer, the usual. I happened to mention Cromwell –” They spat. “ – and she turned quite pale, but I couldn’t get anything out of her. Nothing that would satisfy Lord Fitzffortescue, anyway.”

Fleetwood’s patron, Lord Fitzffortescue, was a demanding man who took orders only from the king, having helped him back to power after the fall of Cromwell (Fleetwood spat again, just to be sure). He had charged Fleetwood with solving Gonnairgh’s murder, quickly, quietly, and with minimal bribes.

“Of course she didn’t,” said Mortimer, “not if you blundered in there like you always do. You know, sometimes I think that approach might work well if you had a partner with you – someone who might be able to play some kind of ‘good’ role, while you assume the ‘bad’…”

“A partner, Master Fleetwood?” came a low, female voice.

Fleetwood scrambled to his feet, dropped his pipe and rammed his wig on his head. He turned around and saw Lady Evelyn Hyde smiling in the doorway. With her gown of gold brocade and her shiny auburn hair, she looked very out of place in the cramped, spit-splattered laboratory.

“Lady Hyde! How may I –”

Do call me Evelyn. I hear you’ve been attending to the late Colonel Gonnairgh.”

Fleetwood tried to look regretful and sombre, but also still tall and manly. “It is my sad duty.”

“You must be very brave to look upon such dreadful things.”

“Yes, well.”

Lady Evelyn smiled at him and came closer, brushing past Mortimer’s workbench. “I must say, I would feel very safe if I knew that you were my protector.”

Fleetwood coughed on purpose to make his voice sound deeper. “Would you?”

“Oh yes…”

Just then, Mortimer sprang to his feet, shouting. His beaker was fizzing frantically and giving off a strange, noxious gas. He pointed at Lady Evelyn. “She put something in my beaker!”

She stepped back. “How do you – I mean, what do you mean?”

Mortimer jabbed a finger at the beaker. “You’ve added acid to this! Look, the metal’s all dissolving!”

Lady Evelyn fluttered her eyelashes. “Dear Master Banks, I am sure that I, a mere woman, would never even carry such – what did you call it? Ah-sid?”

Fleetwood sprang to her defence. “See? Of course she didn’t do that, Mortimer, she’s a lady. Why would she even have any acid?”

Lady Evelyn frowned prettily. “Is it a kind of ribbon? I do so love ribbons.”

“She did!” Mortimer wailed, “I know she did!”

“Perhaps it is best if I leave you to your deductions,” said Lady Evelyn, swiftly pocketing a handful of papers. “You simply must tell me what you find out, dear Master Fleetwood. I should be very glad to hear it.”

She left. Fleetwood watched her go with a dreamy smile on his face while Mortimer muttered at his bench. When he started paying attention again he noticed that he was short fifty guineas and three pewter mugs.

“What I wouldn’t give for some surveillance in this place,” Mortimer muttered, “perhaps in some kind of circuitry that could be closed to the public…”

Fleetwood laughed. “Oh, Mortimer,” he said, “what will you think of next?”

 

My full book-cookbook can be found here. Let me know what you’d like me to look at next – and as always, take this recipe with a pinch of salt.

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Heh heh heh. (image: replycandy.com)