Writing what you don’t know: 4 ways to research your novel

A big part of writing fiction novels involves pretending you know a lot about topics you have a very limited knowledge of. Perhaps your main character is a lawyer, or a doctor, or a 19th century pirate. Each require you, the author, to know a bit about their careers or background — but sometimes it can be difficult to get you hands on the information you need.

There are many different resources to find out more about the topics you’re covering, be it a brick-and-mortar library or just by searching online. You’re bound to find something on Google, although some topics can be harder to find information on than others. So you might need to get a little creative.

1) Online research

A novel I’ve been working on took my characters off on the back of an 1800’s sailing ship, but I knew absolutely nothing about sailing in general — let alone anything about sailing in the 1800’s. Searching online proved difficult, as most things were explained in a way that made little sense to me. I found different ship types, names, where they came from — but how did I know if I had a realistic one? The traditional “google-different-variations-of-the-same-search-query-and-hope-for-the-best” wasn’t really working. Instead, I turned to Tumblr.

A strange option, I know, but Tumblr is full of people passionate about particular topics — and often, they’re experts too. I found someone who loved ships, gave them the little information I had, and got some good directions in return. I ended up focusing on Brigantine Ships, and now that I knew what to google I could find some great information. I used YouTube to explore the crew life on board: how many people were required to run a ship; how far they could travel; what they ate; how the dead were handled — even how they went to the loo!

To really find the nuggets of information you need, sometimes you might have to alter the way you search. For topics more akin to law and medicine, you could try forums and discussion boards, or perhaps you’ll luck into finding a brain surgeon with a dedicated Tumblr open to asks. It’s important to keep an open mind when you go into these conversations: there may be certain aspects you’re set on learning about, but be open to discovering new things about your topic as well. 

2) Media sources

While movies, books and TV shows might not always come from fact, they do give you an idea of what people are willing to believe. While you can’t just copy plots and characters into your stories, they can offer inspiration that might prompt you in your own writing endeavours. So, watch movies and shows across all genres, and take notes of all the bits that grab your attention. 

Additionally, documentaries and channels like Animal Planet and History are often a bit more reliable than the above. They can give you background information from verifiable sources, that can spur your writing onward and give it credibility. A great example of a writer who was inspired by history is George R.R Martin with Game of Thrones, who used the real-life Wars of the Roses to drive his massively popular series.

3) Talk to people

Old ones, young ones, smart ones, experts… You can learn a lot from the people around you. Everyone sees the world differently, and everyone learns the world differently. There are cultural differences, generational differences, and simply different point of views. Regardless of similarities between backgrounds, individual people are as unique as the trees. Learning their stories, their ways of thinking and their ways of seeing the world will help you build out complex and believable characters and plots.

You can do this by looking online for discussion boards and the like, but some of the best conversations come from people you meet in real life. Consider your neighbours, friends, and colleagues, to customers at a grocery store, people at a retirement village, or someone you meet fleetingly when you’re away on a holiday.

4) Take creative liberty

This is code for make stuff up. Use your imagination to fill in the gaps where your knowledge and science doesn’t fit, and don’t be afraid to also take creative liberty when something real might need tweaking to fit well within the context of your story.

Most readers are willing to suspend disbelief – to an extent. First you have to create a basis that is believable, it must be something that readers can pretend could be true. Then, you can mix it in with the unbelievable and your readers will accept it as fact, at least while they read your novel. So, take creative liberty and craft your work of art into something magical, even if it’s a little unbelievable. 

Whatever technique you chose to undertake your research, keep in mind that it’s similar to many other undertakings – you have to pick two: good, fast, or cheap. And the results of your choice will be noticeable in your work.

This post was originally published on The Writing Resource.

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    Harry Potter enthusiast, book blogger, and lover of the oxford comma.

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