“Write what you know,” is a famous quote often used in writing circles, and it is good advice.
I can easily tell a story about a South African horticulturist who has never left the country, and who is an only child. I’ve lived that life. I can get right into that character’s skin and really explore what it means to be them.
The problem is that ALL my characters in all my books can’t be horticulturist only- children who never leave South Africa.
Somewhere down the line. I am going to have to explore new careers, different countries, and experiences that I have never experienced. And that’s where research comes in.
Obviously if your novel is set on Planet Zog that has hundreds of pink microbes bouncing on green jelly, you can pretty much make up anything. But if you are writing about planet Earth, you need to get your facts straight.
And why should we bother? Because as writers, we need to have integrity. We need our readers to be able to believe us. It is a disheartening experience when we read a historical novel for instance, and realise that the author didn’t even try and get historical facts right, and that they completely changed the personality of some famous person because they were too lazy to do some work on it.
And what if we are writing children’s stories? Surely it doesn’t matter if the Little Speckled Hen doesn’t get the facts right. But that’s the worst of all. I work in a primary school library. Children for the greater part believe what they are reading, often without question.
Research is probably my favourite part of writing a novel. I get to learn interesting facts, meet amazing people and explore things I would never dreamed of doing normally.
So how does one research?
What would we do without the internet! Honestly, I am in awe of the writers who did research before Google. By exploring the web, I can decide that my character was an actress in a certain Broadway play in 1912 in the Moulin Rouge Theatre. I can even find a photo of the cast in the magnificent ice skating scene that took place on stage.
It might require nights of searching, using as many different combinations of words that we can think of, but the answers are out there, and if we can’t find them, there are countless people who are happy to give us advice.
Of course, nothing can beat first-hand experience. I have rubbed stinging nettles in my arms to get an accurate feel of what the sting was like. I borrowed a wheelchair and took it into a shopping mall to see how I could get around. (The lifts were horribly small) I have eaten wild berries and boiled leaves.
Ask your friend if you can go along to her pottery class or motorcross rally. Help out in a shop for an hour. Make the Hollandaise Sauce that your chef character cooks on his TV show.
Interviewing people in a very rewarding avenue of research. Just make sure you know exactly what information you need from them, and narrow it down to a few pertinent questions. People are normally busy, and you must be professional and efficient.
I’ve learned the hard way, that it is always best to tell people you are a writer. One young man thought I liked him, and came all the way to my work with a bunch of roses to ask me out. I felt terrible, as I had to tell him that I had only been interested in his job!
Always take note of your sources and give them credit for the information they gave you. Be creative and most of all, have fun!
About Julianne Alcott
I live in South Africa, and have been writing stories ever since I learned how to write.
My favourite things are...
Writing (obviously), dancing, and spending time with the people I care about. Next in line are reading, movies, food and exploring.
I look awful in most photos, and my hair is the thing I would like to change about myself. Most of the time it goes "boiingg".
I have the perfect job for me... I work in a primary school library. I get to teach Media Studies and really open the world up for children.
I write love stories that give me interesting things to learn about. My first sci-fi novel, The Ripmender, will be published by Wordsmack Publishers on the 6th May as an E book.
To pre-order, go to:
A Writer's Tale
Scarlett Van Dijk
Writer of young adult, fantasy series, the Sky Stone series, poetry and short stories.
Subscribe to my blog to receive email updates of my latest posts.