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Who hasn’t heard that old adage, “write what you know?” That’s how to get realism in your story, and if your story doesn’t feel real, nobody’s going to want to read it, goes the thought. Oh poor writers, sitting there with that sinking feeling, because you’re an accountant or a phys ed teacher and you want to write hard science fiction or steampunk, but the adage says you can’t. Well ace, I’m here to lift that burden from your weary shoulders. Do you think Isaac Asimov journeyed in space ships, getting into trouble on alien worlds? He didn’t, but he did have an incredible imagination, which you do too. You have something else—the capacity to research.
Some of the subjects I needed to know about in order to write my novel, and write it convincingly:
Of that list, subjects I knew something about when I first started writing the novel -- zero.
I don’t know any bands, I know exactly one person who used to be in a band, I am so painfully shy that I couldn’t even introduce myself to the local writers group I wanted to join. Did I sigh mournfully and give up? Well, I did for a few years, but then a miracle happened -- the internet was born.
Online, I found a DVD documentary about a tour by the rock band Rush, told from the POV of some of their roadies (road technicians, thank you). I found roadie-related websites. I found Luis Rodriguez’ amazing non-fiction book Always Running, which, while set several years earlier than my story, takes place in the same city and gives important insights on how street gangs formed and how they progressed. I hadn’t had the foggiest idea that any of this stuff existed. Michael Jackson’s “This Is It” documentary was released, showing a lot of background stuff that the public never sees but that I needed to know.
Just walking through my local public library, glancing at the new books, I found Wild Boy by Duran Duran guitarist Andy Taylor. Perfect for the atmosphere surrounding 80s rock. Watching Celebrity Apprentice when Sharon Osborne was on, I found out that (according to Sharon) the homes of the super-rich don’t include dressers in the bedrooms, they keep their stuff in closets. That helps me with the home setting of my super-rich rock band.
These finds continue today. So by now, what I love is turning into what I know and therefore I can write my story with some authority. A few people have asked me, after reading bits of my story, if I play in a band. That, friends, is perhaps the highest compliment.
Don’t let research scare you. Always keep your eyes and ears open; you never know when fascinating, useful information will find you. Find what makes your blood race and your heart pound, what makes you forget to eat and drink and sleep, and research it. It won’t even be work but you’ll absorb huge amounts of stuff that will come out in all sorts of subtle ways in your writing. This applies to everything from stories about art thieves to hard science fiction to fantasy. There are always things to research no matter what genre you write.
That in turn will help you create a living, breathing world that readers will think you grew up in. If you can do that with a story about accountants or phys ed teachers, come back here and put up a blog post about it!