Been There, Done That
When you write, chances are you’re basing your work on your personal experiences in some way, shape or form. Most of us will do this early on, and this is why you hear the advice write what you know. There is some good advice there, and I agree personal experience makes for a really good start.
But eventually – and I’ve said before that a good artist is like a mountain climber, looking for new challenges with every work. You need to grow, to push yourself, and eventually, like it or not you need to get outside the comfort zone.
But I’ve Never…
Eventually writing about things you know about will get kind of boring, and you’ll want to branch out into other types of stories. I’m relatively sure that Stephen King or J.K. Rowling have never been to worlds like the ones they’ve written so much about. Most thriller and horror writers haven’t killed anyone. How many people on earth have been into space, and none of them (as far as I know) have traveled beyond earth orbit. What gives – why do my instructors tell me write what I know when I’ve never done anything like this?
This is where research comes in. Go out and read about people who’ve done what you want to write about. Libraries are packed with books about all kinds of people, and a good reference librarian can help you find almost anything. These people work in a library for a reason, to help people like you. Take advantage of this fact and don’t be shy – go ask a few questions.
Find out if you can get some kind of experience similar to what you want to write about. Chances are within an hour’s drive (depending on where you live), you can learn anything from firing a handgun to scuba diving. First person experience is awesome, if you can get it. This is not always an option – for many reasons.
Send an Email – Pick Up the Phone
These days there’s a plethora of information available online. There are sites dedicated to giving people access to experts across a variety of fields (so many I hesitate listing any, since they tend to change so often). I’d keep an eye on Writers Digest’s annual round up of the top 100 websites for writers. That list usually contains several places to get information from experts, usually free or at very low cost.
If you get good with search engines, you’ll be able to find organizations and individuals in the fields you’re interested in, or close matches. That reference librarian could come in handy here as well. Try dropping the person an email, briefly explain your project, and then wait. You’d be surprised how often people will answer you. I’ve spoken with pathologists and World War Two historians through contacting them via their personal web sites.
If you take this approach, my advice is tightly scope your question, perhaps as a bulleted list of five or six things you need to address. Get your answers, ask for clarification if need be, perhaps pointers to other credible sources, and thank your contact for their time.
What About the Fantastic -or- Dramatic License is OK
I know some of you are writing speculative fiction. So you’re probably wondering – how does this stuff apply to me? This type of writing is about possibilities – what might have been is more important than what is (or was).
So if you’re writing this kind of material, you get to play the “what if” game. You take something real. Adapt it a little bit. And you continue on with this exercise until you put this puzzle together logically.
Want to be let in on a little secret? This happens in other types of stories as well. Things don’t necessarily have to work the way they do in real life. You’re not a detective – you’re a storyteller.
If you need something to work a certain way so the story works, that’s dramatic license. You’re free to make changes. The caveat is you need to know and understand reality, then and only then you can deviate to make the story work.
You would be amazed at how many writers don’t get this and think they need to make absolutely everything positively realistic. Even in the most rigid, fact-based thrillers, you’re going to see dramatic license (you may have to look hard to find it, but believe me, it’s there, even in the most reality-grounded fiction). In a screenwriting class, I had an instructor give me advice that resonates to this day – fiction is not meant to be a mirror of reality.
When Does It End?
My parting thoughts for you, and I know this is a big question for some of you, is when do I stop researching and start writing? I really wish I had an answer for you. This is something you’ll need to answer for yourself, and it may be a few projects before you find your way.
My approach – and this works for me, but feel free to adapt to what works for you – is I spend a few hours a night doing research for maybe a week, loading my brain up with enough to get going, and then I hit the keyboard. And I don’t stop. Eventually I hit a story wall, it’s back to brainstorming and more research. I move back and forth through the writing/researching cycles all through the piece. For me it never really stops.
I don’t know how other writers do it, I’m sure there are hundreds of web sites out there in the cloud that have all kinds of advice about this, but in the end it’s up to you. Just keep in mind in art – like with many things – there are No Absolutes.
Good luck, and feel free to leave a comment or tweet me for advice or clarification.