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Writing What You Don’t Know: Research For Writing Fiction, by Greg Barron

Probably the sagest advice ever offered to a new writer is to “Write what you know.”

This, in general, makes a lot of sense, but if you are writing books with multinational settings, and varied characters, it will only take you so far.

Luckily, “What you know,” is a very fluid term. You are an intelligent, curious creature. “Write what interests you,” might be a better maxim. You can learn enough to write about just about any topic, but absorbing knowledge to a level necessary for writing a book is not a matter of spending ten minutes on Wikipedia.

When I was writing Rotten Gods some of the settings were just too dangerous to visit. Yemen was on the brink of civil war. Even Somalia was a much more dangerous place than it is now (and it’s still one of the most violent places on earth). I was able, however, to get very close to the Somali border, in Northern Kenya, and visit villages with the same cultural make up. Even there I had to walk on eggshells, and I was told by security consultant mate who had been working in Mogadishu, “Don’t tell ANYONE that you’re a writer.” When a Frenchwoman was kidnapped by Somali gunmen just a kilometre from where I was staying I understood what he was talking about.

Research gives you freedom to write about anyone and anything. Getting the basics via the internet has never been easier. YouTube videos of streets all over the world can be used in conjunction with Google street view. Lonely Planet guides and similar are excellent, as are thousands of websites, but be careful not to end up with scraps of other people’s sentences in your manuscript.

You don’t need to visit every location you write about, but if you are writing primarily about one setting, and that setting is an integral part of the story, then visiting, even temporarily living, in that location is by far the best way to absorb all the little details that will bring your story to life. Of course, if you are writing historical fiction, fantasy, or science fiction, that’s not possible. The reader, however, will expect, and deserves, a level of detail that allows them to be immersed completely. Internet research alone will not cut it for a book set in Pol Pot’s Cambodia. Interviewing someone who was there, coupled with a visit to the many historic sites will help, as will reading accounts from survivors.

I once wrote a story set largely around the flight of a B-50 bomber. I purchased and built a hobbyist’s (Airfix) model of the plane. It gave me a better idea of the layout of the machine than any 2D schematic could have done. I did the same thing with a sixteenth century ship, then walked aboard an actual life size replica. If you don’t know how the captain gets from his cabin to the life boats, how can you expect the reader to visualise it?

Want to know how it feels to fire a handgun? Call up a pistol club and ask if you can tag along at one of their range shoots. Flying a plane? Download a flight simulator, then get a couple of actual lessons. Interview a Qantas pilot if the plane is a big one. It’s all a lot of fun, in my experience, and often the story ideas come thick and fast during the research period.

Most Stephen King novels have an author or teacher as a protagonist, and many are set in Maine. That’s what he knows, (and he does it so well), but you don’t have to do that. With research you can write about anything, and anywhere, you choose.


Greg Barron’s author website:

Greg Barron’s Bio Page

Rotten Gods11.22.63Wings of FearStillwater CreekThe Book of LoveThe PacificBitter Greens

5 Comments Post a comment
  1. rosannedingli #

    This was a brilliant article (I always think stuff I agree with is brilliant!) mostly because it’s the way I work. I am about two-thrids of the way into my fourth novel. I always use Australian protagonists, almost always male (I’ve lived with men, see… never partnered a woman, so I don’t know how that feels). I have travelled and put the locations visited to good use, but have also put into use the methods used here. I could not visit Syria for my second novel – and can certainly not go there now. The places I wrote about are partially destroyed. But I had been to Turkey and used similar atmospherics for neighbouring Syria.

    Research for my work in progress means delving into human anatomy, Nazi Germany, hand-made jewellery and the cutting of stones, the fashions of WWII, Venice in the 1700s… Italian prostitutes in the 1950s, the operas of a certain composer, and lots more. Yes, the internet does help, but one must know where to look, and one must prepare for literally hours of chasing after one fact, when no other will do. Libraries too must be seen like second homes!

    Greg Barron, Rotten Gods is on my TBR list now, especially because my husband reads the genre, and I want to hear what he has to say about the research behind the fiction – always a significant aspect.

    Well done.

    January 1, 2013
  2. Thanks for the reply, Rosanne, and good luck with your own work. Definitely drop me a line and let me know how your husband goes with Rotten Gods. Cheers Greg

    January 4, 2013
  3. I’d love to be able to visit the places I write about, but as that is impractical, I resort to as much research as feasible, and then by making places fictional. An Arabian country I am writing about now has a capital called Ensjeurat (and I must check to make sure there’s no real place called Ensjeurat) But even when writing about your own home town, there are going to be inaccuracies. As much as you try, it is impossible to get everything correct to the satisfaction of some people.

    January 13, 2013
  4. Thanks Marj. I sometimes fictionalise places too, particularly hotels or restaurants as I can then design them to suit the story, not the other way round. Local people can also be intimately familiar with such places in ways the visiting writer never can, and its very hard to get fine details exactly right. For example, I fictionalised the Dubai conference centre in Rotten Gods, and can’t see how I could have done it any other way. I did, however, find an actual site, the vacant land where my imaginary centre was situated, and take it from there.

    January 16, 2013

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