Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Research Techniques when Writing about the Unfamiliar

Technique Tuesday
In the October 3, 2010 of Writing Excuses, Brandon, Dan, and Howard take up the topic of Writing the Unfamiliar. Dan introduced the topic by observing that if we strictly followed the advice to, "write what you know," we'd never produce any speculative fiction.

So, how can you write about a real place you've never visited but which others know very well? The trio from Writing Excuses, suggested that you draft the story you want to write and then enlist people who know the subject to correct your errors.

Naturally, they also acknowledged the importance of research (though Brandon said that felt like stating the obvious).

It's easy to assume that everyone (or at least everyone who's been to college) knows how to research a topic. Indeed, thanks to Google, it feels deceptively easy.

Writers, however, have a particular challenge when it comes to research: they generally can't afford to do it.

In one sense, writing is illusion. So the critical question is how can you do just enough research to create a compelling illusion?

The biggest pitfall for a writer is to go with common wisdom or accept something on face value. Of course, we know not to do that with our characters and our plots: we avoid stereotypes and tired old plot devices by digging deeper into the character or story. But we forget that we need to dig deeper in our research.

If you go with common wisdom, or take things at face value, you will always make the kind of glaring mistakes that will encourage people who know more about the subject to throw your book across the room, disgusted that you couldn't be bothered to take a bit of time and look into the matter.

For example, we "know" that history is a story of progress because we now have cities and luxuries on a scale that our ancestors couldn't imagine. So common wisdom tells us, for example, that medieval warriors would have bludgeoned each other with heavy, clumsy swords. People who studied a number of real medieval combat swords found that common wisdom was wrong: the swords weighed between two and four pounds, and with the right technique were agile and deadly.*

When you want to write about something with which you are unfamiliar, begin with this guiding principle:
People generally don't do things that don't make sense, and they almost never do things contrary to their own interests.
Simply asking whose interests are being served often helps you zoom in on the most important facets of the subject, whether it's a place, a person, or a process.

Remember, your goal is not to become a world-class expert on the subject, but to know enough to convince the people who do know that you've done enough homework to avoid the obvious errors.

In the spirit of little systems, here are two touchstones to help you know when you've done enough research:
  • Your research isn't done until you've discovered something surprising about the topic.
  • Your research isn't done until you can explain how the conventional wisdom is right and wrong.

* I found this link in the The Fantasy Novelist's Exam, which has been circulating in conjunction with NaNoWriMo. The exam lists a series of questions. If you answer any of them, "yes," it's a pretty good indication you should NOT write a medievaloid fantasy. Instead, do you homework until you understand what the answer to each question should be, "no."

Image: luigi diamanti / FreeDigitalPhotos.net


  1. Good advice! With my last two projects, I've picked places/people that have intrigued me but I knew little about. Through research I trusted a story would emerge. It is sort of a scary process but thrilling, too.

    On project focuses on the Kansas frontier. Both my editor and agent asked if I had lived in Kansas or spent a lot of time in Kansas, which was very satisfying.

  2. This is golden advice, and research is an important topic often ignored. Thanks for posting this!


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