As an author, I often find myself in situations where I create and write the unknown. I usually write YA Sci-Fi, and since nothing in my life can give me that hands-on spaceflight experience, alien encounters or the exploration of an unknown planet, I have to wing it. Well, to a certain extent… We’ll get back to that in a bit.
On occasion, I find myself lacking in personal or professional experience to authentically forge a character or situation. The Internet is a blessing for so many of these details today because with one simple click of a mouse, I can find myself standing on Fifth Avenue in NY, on Nevsky Prospect in St. Petersburg, or on la rue Jussieu in Paris. I can google details from the past, present, and consider speculations about the future, stop by a hotel lobby or peruse the menu in an exotic restaurant, and if need be, I can explore an underwater shipwreck, or watch a tutorial on how to make my own soap on YouTube. All of this from the comfort of my home if I so desire…or an internet café, while riding the train, you name it. Research has come a long way.
Human experience is another invaluable source of inspiration and information. We can ask friends and co-workers to help fill in the blanks, or toss questions out online through our Fb groups or other venues to have people share their experience with whatever situation that may be causing us grief while writing. I do not believe that television offers a valid source of information, though, since they tend to stretch the truth to make their stories larger than life. (Thanks to Myth Busters, I now know a car will not explode if bullets hit the gas tank). I prefer to remain as true and as accurate as possible in my writing.
Oh, and a word of caution with your research, especially if you are writing murder mysteries or thrillers, be careful what you type into that search engine because there are some topics that can attract unwanted attention to you. I know of one author on the “No Fly” list…I kid you not.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with learning something new to put into our stories. The main character in my last novel was a NY divorce lawyer. This is so not anywhere within my realm of expertise or knowledge. I did consult with a friend who is a family court lawyer, as well as spend days and days online looking up NY Law terms, procedures and protocol. I never did find out if they wore robes in NY family court, but here in Quebec they do, and since they sell those robes in the States, I went with it.
Writing what you know is awesome, not only because it significantly cuts down on research time, but because you should be comfortable creating from this space. A unique space found within, filled with sights, sounds, smells and emotions from the experience. No two authors are the same either, and each one has their own life story, adding to the supply of situations and people to colour and shape their own story. I consider myself lucky, because I can write about many different and interesting things, but at one point, like I mentioned in the last paragraph, you find yourself out of your comfort zone.
I believe that research is a personal thing. How much is required, how detailed you have to be, and what to actually use or make up rests with the author. I love to learn new things, and therefore, enjoy the challenge of stretching myself a little farther to honor my quest for accuracy. In one book, I had my characters in a survival setting build a compost potty. Now aside from those two words, “compost potty,” none of my research made it into the story. I have pages and pages on various types of potties, their construction, and upkeep. In my opinion, it was necessary to make the best choice for my story, even though 99.9% of all that work and research never showed up in the novel.
How do I handle Sci-Fi? I did my research there as well, using technology that has been tested on Earth. Some things, like transporting down from the ship to the planet, are a stretch of the possible. Scientists have managed to transport a molecule a few feet from its point of origin, so I allowed myself to use it.
All this to say what? Yes, for sure, write what you know, but then, never spurn the chance to learn and grow. Think about it. You could take a ride on an ambulance to get a feel for their day-to -day drama (yes, ride-alongs are permitted), or take a few classes in fencing or martial arts to allow you to form a more accurate feel for the sport. I hold balck belts in several disciplines, so I know that years of training and experience cannot be obtained in just a few classes, but it'll be that much more realistic than writing from no experience at all.
Face it, us authors have the best jobs in the world. And if we don't like something, we can just rewrite it!