Write What You Don’t Know: Researching Like an Expert

Let’s say you’re not Ernest Hemingway, and you can’t, for various reasons, actually travel to 1930s Spain to observe first-hand the goings-on of the Spanish Revolution. And yet, you have a burning desire to tell a story set in the chaos and fiery idealism of those times. Where do you get your details? How do you give your story the essential ring of authenticity that reels in readers and keeps them turning pages? The answer, of course, is research. In fact, one of the things that sets apart the real storytellers from the wishful also-rans is detailed, granular research.

It would be lovely to be able to go to exotic destinations to gather your information in person, but for many writers that isn’t possible. Fortunately, there are many alternatives that won’t cost you the price of a round-trip air ticket. Take the internet, for example. Need a map of the area in the South Dakota Badlands where your protagonist is trying to elude his pursuers? Meet your new friend, Google Earth. Setting a dramatic chase scene in the Eiffel Tower, but you’ve never been to Paris? Take an online virtual tour on the official website. Get the idea? The number of facts, details, colors, and sounds you can discover online is limited only by your imagination and creativity in selecting your search terms.

Don’t forget the other sensations that create a strong sense of reality in your scenes. Taste and smell, for example, are two of the most emotionally evocative senses, and yet they are absent from the writing of most inexperienced novelists. But how do you know what the tandoori chicken smells and tastes like in a restaurant on Saki Vihar Road in Mumbai? Well, you might start by eating lunch at your local Indian place and writing down your impressions. In other words, you probably have local access to places and people who can give you information that you can put to good use in your story. Sometimes, just a nugget of apt description is all it takes to give your scene the feeling of genuineness that it needs.

Believe it or not, Gene Roddenberry, creator of the Star Trek franchise, never actually captained a starship. He did, however, fly B-17s in World War II, so he had direct personal knowledge of the ways in which combat crews interacted. In other words, he took what he knew from one context and applied it to the imaginary context of his story. Expanding on this technique, you can also take advantage of the expertise of others. Let’s say you’re writing a thriller in which the bad guys are tracking the hero through the internet. You may not have the hacker skills to allow you to drop convincing details into the narrative, but chances are good that your company employs an IT expert who could give you some useful pointers. Furthermore, the information is unlikely to cost you more than the price of lunch or a couple of beers.

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