You’ve probably heard it over and over to “Write what you know”, whether it relates to your hero’s job or where he lives. This is all well and good, but depending on your education and experience, what do you do when you get an idea where you main character is an archeologist, but you know precious little about it?
If you don’t know first hand, then learn via research. I have found research to be some of the most satisfying and enjoyable part of writing. It always provides additional ideas for plot twists and story details far beyond what I originally conceived.
Accuracy is essential if you want to maintain credibility as an author. Fiction or not, there are limits to what you can make up off the top of your head. Believe me, anyone who knows something about that particular profession, location, or whatever, is going to be on you like a duck on a June bug if you get it wrong. When a reader is rolling their eyes at your story, don’t think they’ll give you a favorable review much less ever become a fan and be back to check out your future work.
Even if your story is well-written otherwise, huge inaccuracies are unforgivable. It’s better to be a little vague than to get it wrong. But getting details spot-on are a bonus that give you credibility and respect as an author.
If you don’t find the answer you’re looking for via Google, another research resource is Quora.com. This is a website where you can ask a specific question and someone who knows about that subject responds. It may have been asked previously, the answer already there. This is a great way to find information, often from experts, to help keep your writing accurate. This is also a place where you can highlight your own talents, knowledge and experience.
I recently had a question about the insurance industry. I threw it out there on Quora and within hours had several answers. They didn’t all agree, which made it even more interesting! Since you can ask a very specific question, the response will be, too while often Google is too general. Check it out.
Trust in serendipity to bring you the information you’re looking for while doing research. Once you start looking, you’ll be surprised how often it will fall right into your lap. Sources include TV documentaries, newspaper articles, blogs, a random conversation, or whatever.
Keep your eyes open! No matter how weird the subject, the information is out there somewhere. Somehow the Universe does a great job of delivering it in the strangest ways. Keep your eyes and ears open. The other day I found an old program I’d recorded months ago on my DVR that fit in perfectly with something I was researching for my current WIP. Once you make up your mind to find it, you will.
As an author I don’t know what I’d do without Wikipedia. It is the first place I go when I want to get a fundamental and easy to understand glimpse at something. If I need to do more research, I do, but more often than not I find everything I need for the purposes of a novel right there. If you haven’t used them, you should try them.
They are a nonprofit who relies on donations and hopes to keep it ad-free. If you use them, I encourage you to donate. They are a tremendous resource and it’s beyond refreshing to be free of ads distracting your attention.
If your plot gets stuck, research often helps to get it moving again. Details add credibility to your story and can also provide new plot angles. It never hurts if your reader learns something along the way, whether it’s about the setting or the protagonist’s job.
For example, if you’re writing a mystery, knowledge of police procedure is important, particularly forensics. Getting it wrong will throw readers who know better out of the story and your credibility is lost. The same goes for any other profession. This is where writing what you know works best, unless you’re willing to learn about others through talking to someone or research.
Some genres require more research than others. For example, writing an historical novel requires a lot to be accurate, unless you’re already an expert on that era. Of course, in that case, you already did your research. Other genres may not require quite as much, such as a basic romance. However, romances should be loaded with sensory details for all the senses. If your setting is in an imaginary town, choosing and researching a specific state or country can make it come alive. Who doesn’t love a book that makes you feel as if you’re there, especially some exotic place you’ll never visit in person?
I’ve said it numerous time before, the devil’s in the details. Being precise is what makes fiction convincing. When you specify street names, the colors of a spectacular sunset, or the make of the gun your hero uses to defend the world, it’s easier for the reader to visualize. Vague writing is weak writing. However, the caveat is to use the right details at the proper level so as not to bog down the story and cause your reader’s eyes to glaze over. That is what will separate a good author from a great one.
If you don’t like research, then there are certain genres you should avoid writing, unless you’re an expert in the area. Stories with any sort of scientific, historical, geographical, or cultural theme need to be accurate. While many people expand their reading to unfamiliar areas because the enjoy learning, others may stick close to what they already know. If you don’t get it right, you’re cheating both types of readers. One will think you’re an idiot and the other may swallow false information.