They say that you should write what you know. Great. Sure. So, what about all of those people — Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Terry Pratchett, Jim Butcher, Isaac Asimov — who have written stories that, hmm, bend the borders of reality a bit. Are we saying that they’re secretly from a parallel universe? Probably not, though that would be really cool.
Even people who don’t write within the fantasy/sci-fi genres are usually writing something that they haven’t personally experienced. Say, all those murder mystery writers who need to portray how a body decomposes when surrounded by plastic wrap and raccoons. Chances are most mystery writers haven’t actually experimented with such things. If they have… well.
The trick to writing a novel that is both interesting, chalk full of details that make a believable setting (yes, even with dragons), yet just outside the readers’ realm of knowledge is… research.
Yes, research. That dreaded thing all your teachers drilled in to you from the time you were a small child to the time you graduated from high school or college with absolutely no idea what you were going to do next. I remember very clearly being taught how to determine a reputable source from one that wasn’t. I remember being told that most .com websites were not useful to use for research and that encyclopaedias were something akin to magic when it came to accurate information. You have to take into account the fact that I learned these things back when computers were still giant doorstops that required you to turn the monitor on then the computer on then connect to the internet.
Things have changed. A lot.
The rise of the internet means that there is information out there that is widely available, perfectly accurate and nearly impossible to sort from the information that is perfectly inaccurate. The rules of determining decent information still apply, though they should be greatly modified. Usually, for things like fantasy and sci-fi, a basic knowledge of the law of conservation of energy will work just fine. For things like mystery, you have to figure out where to find decent information on death and decay and investigative techniques.
All of this may sound like a lot of work. Why bother doing the research when you are pretty certain that your readers won’t know the difference between an induction-style engine and heat-differential intake, science fictionally speaking. The reason for good research is because it makes the world you’re building a whole lot more realistic.
Some of my favourite books have no basis in proven reality. I like them because I believe that it is possible for such things to exist. Why? Because the author has explained it in a way that aligns with the rules of reality.
Also, doing research helps for when you get those nitpicky readers who say, “Now, wait a minute. You can’t feasibly take a Ferrari from 0 – 100 on a quarter mile track. It just doesn’t work, I don’t care how talented you are.” Or the fact that it’s nearly impossible to get vodka to ignite after it’s been sitting out on the counter for three days, top off. (Actually, I know this one for a fact from personal experience. My Christmas pudding was ruined on account of that.)
There are going to be people who have more experience in certain areas than you do. And let me tell you, if you get one thing wrong, the reader is going to be looking for mistakes elsewhere. These add up to people wanting to tear your story apart rather than read it and cherish it.
I’ve made plenty of mistakes that could have been fixed by simple research. I’ve also spent an entire afternoon researching different cocktails for one tiny scene in a book that had very little to do with alcohol. Great fun, but not particularly helpful.
Research is essential. I don’t care what genre you’re writing in. It helps to flesh out your world. Make it believable. And that puts the reader right in the middle of the action, which is where we want to be.