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: www.gregbarron.com