Back in high school, I tried writing about 20’s gangsters. I did no research beyond what I’d seen in movies. I just wrote the story and turned it in to a writing workshop, ready to be showered with praises for my genius.
As you might have guessed, that wasn’t what happened.
After the group was done picking apart my inaccuracies, I sulked back home with my ego significantly deflated.
Maybe you’ve had a similar experience. Maybe there’s a topic you’re passionate about but are warry of after being told to “write what you know,” too many times.
So how do you write convincingly about an unfamiliar subject? Well, the short answer is to become familiar with it through research.
When I first started writing, research was a dirty word to me, probably because of school. I was scarred by long research assignments, reading old books on subjects I didn’t care about.
Fortunately, I soon discovered that research wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought. In fact, I’ve started to enjoy it. Unlike school assignments, when I research a short story, I’m learning a subject I actually care about.
With research you can:
- Add realism to your story through key details
- Avoid glaring inaccuracies that can distract a reader (or publisher) from your story
- Add a layer of subtlety that will draw your reader in
Here are some research strategies I use for my fiction.
Ask an expert
Obviously, this is the best tactic. Speaking to someone who knows your subject well can reveal intricacies that books or the Internet never could.
My short story Paper Walls is about a young woman with schizophrenia in a mental hospital, something outside my realm of experience.
While I didn’t know anyone with schizophrenia in particular, I did know someone with a mental illness who had spent time in a mental hospital. And when I explained my concept for the story, he got excited and wanted to talk to me about his experience. I learned a lot from him that I might not have otherwise.
Whatever your subject is, there’s a good chance you know someone who is an expert (or at least knows more about it than you do).
Don’t just read the technical material
While talking to someone is preferable, it’s not always an option. And for that we have the treasure-trove of knowledge that is the Internet.
Unfortunately, one common mistake people make is to simply read technical articles on their subject and ignore the emotional elements.
While the psychological/medical articles about schizophrenia were useful, they didn’t really tell me what it feels like to have schizophrenia. Fortunately, I found a treasure trove of essays and videos by people with the illness talking about their experiences.
Listening to other people’s emotions makes it easier for you to put yourself in their shoes and imagine how you would feel in their situation.
Relate to events in your real life
While I’ve not been to a mental hospital, I have been to therapy and I have had trouble opening up to people, so I decided to make these sources of conflict in Paper Walls.
Think about something you’ve experienced that might give you a window into your subject.
Maybe your story is about an son and his estranged father. You might be very close to your father, but surely at some point you’ve been mad at him. Take that emotion and extrapolate outwards. Put yourself into your research and consider how you might feel.
Write an unfamiliar subject by becoming familiar
With the internet, instant communication, and libraries on every corner, we have access to more information than any other authors in history.
Using research, you can write convincingly about even the most unfamiliar subject.
Read more at https://jmhollingsworthblog.wordpress.com/.