How many times have you heard “write what you know”? It’s good advice – to a point. Because if everyone only wrote what they knew, we’d have no space odysseys, no dragons, no magical words, no elves or dwarves or krakens… and we’d be poorer for it.
So where does one draw the line between what you “should” write and what you can write? I’d say there isn’t a line, and if you’ve been limiting yourself, STOP! If you can make your readers want to enter the world you’ve written, no matter how unrealistic or crazy, then you’ve still succeeded in writing something good (i.e. interesting). You don’t need to be an expert in fighting to write a fight scene, or on trains to write about your characters taking a train ride. Same goes for flying on the back of a dinosaur, or piloting a ship through outer space – if you can make it interesting and immersive for your readers, only a few are going to nitpick the details. ♦
But how do you add enough details in to make your story or world seem more realistic, while avoiding the need for a Master’s degree in your chosen subject matter?
Here are a few ways I research for my fantasy stories, using the International Space Station as my example:
Research what’s real:
If there is a real-world equivalent, I look up basic facts about it. Search engines are your friend (Google, Bing, DuckDuckGo (for privacy in your searches), Wiki search, and CC Search).
Wikipedia is helpful, but it’s best to use it as a launching pad to read articles, or to do new searches. For example: free fall, differences in combustion, and solar arrays.
Read similar stories:
Reading is research, no matter how much fun you’re having! Try to take notes on what parts of the stories work for you – whether it’s the character dynamics, the world-building, the science (fiction), the action, etc. You’re joining part of the target reader audience when you consume fiction, and you can learn from the good (and bad) about what your story needs more of.
Check out reviews about your favorite books and see what other readers loved or hated about them. Take those into consideration when crafting your story.
Don’t discount your imagination. Most of the technology we enjoy today would never have come into being if someone hadn’t imagined a machine that would make life easier, or their story cooler – and then someone else came along who wanted to create it! Think of all the gadgets that Star Trek and James Bond “used” that are now either common-place or coming into being! Could Alexander Graham Bell have imagined people walking around a park with a BlueTooth phone in their ear?!?
A great example of science fiction coming to life is the normalcy of space travel – we’ll soon see the first tourists to orbit the moon (Space Adventures already has had 7 people pay to fly to space) How is that going to change the way we plan vacations in the next 50 years? What about in another 200?! Imagine all the different stories that have been told: (tv: Star Trek, Star Wars, anime: Cowboy Bebop, any Gundam series, books: All Systems Red, the Vorkosigan saga, Descender… the list goes on and on) and all the stories yet to be written!
When it comes down to it, you can’t base all of your decisions for a story on what other people say. Balance feedback from your beta readers with what you are wanting to say. Let your characters speak out! If you get too depressed about your characters being too similar to what has come before, remember: “There’s nothing new under the sun” – and yet everything you create adds something unique to the great body of work the human race has been producing since we learned to tell stories!
♦ I’d like to see those nit-pickers write their own story.
Katie, signing off