There's an old saying that, when writing a story, you should "write what you know". The reason is that it gives your work authenticity and authority...you won't just be making things up out of thin air. Your work will have a compelling reality to it because it's based on things you're familiar with.
The problem with this conventional
wisdom is that it can be limiting. You may not be all that interested in
the topics you're already familiar with. So I would change this
familiar bit of advice to "write what you're interested in".
Great films and stories always feel
authentic and "real" on some level. If your world doesn't feel like a
"real" world, then the story feels false and you can't get an audience
to connect with the characters and worry about them, feel something for
them and fret about how their story will turn out, which is where all
the compelling emotion in a film comes from. Even when creating a
fantasy world that doesn't exist, it's very important to first
understand as much as you can about the world we live in and apply it to
the world you create. Because your readers are familiar with the actual
world we live in - it's all any of us really know - we use our everyday
experiences in the real world as a barometer to judge how real a
fantasy world feels. For example, if you have dragons in your story,
read up on birds and bats, and dinosaurs that were able to fly, as well
as large animals like elephants and whales (and whatever other topics
you can think of), and you will find tons of great details that will
allow you to make your dragons specific to your story - dragons
that are like ones that no one else has ever created. People love that
kind of thing and it will make your story memorable, specific and
unique. It'll make your fantasy world feel real. And it will make
your story come to life and make it compelling in a way it can never be
if you're just making things up out of thin air.
So, if you're working on a project of your own, it's very important - and these days, easier than ever - to do your research.
living in an amazing age for doing research. The internet has placed an
amazingly vast resource at everyone's fingertips. And the fact that
there are so many television channels now, like the Discovery channel
and the History channel, etc. means that documentaries about a wide
variety of topics are being produced like never before.
And when I say the internet, it's not just things like wikipedia that I have found helpful...I constantly use sites like abebooks and alibris to find used and out-of-print books that are not only great help but also available at extremely affordable prices.
For example, here's a photo of just some of the books I've been using for research on my own personal project.
of these I was able to get from alibris for a dollar or so. Also, not
pictured are the dozen or so books I read on my kindle for research.
also found Google Maps to be a great resource. The story I'm working on
takes place in a place I've never been. It would be great to visit
there but it's not feasible right now. So Google Maps street view is a
I'm old enough that it still blows my
mind to be able to type in any place in the world and be able to "walk
the streets" by using Google street view (I'm sure there are vast
swatches of land to be done yet by Google maps, but so far everything
I've needed I've been able to find).
I've you've never tried Google Maps street view, check it out sometime. I know everyone probably knows how to use it already, but just in case you don't know how to do it, here's a quick tutorial:
Go to Google.com and type in any address in the search bar( for example, I typed "2100 Riverside Dr., Burbank", the address where I work).
Now, when the search results come up, click the option that says "view in Google Maps" (should always be the first result).
When the map opens up, it'll look something like this:
Here's a closer look at the upper left hand corner. Check out the little orange man I made a red arrow to indicate him). You can grab him with the cursor
and drop him anywhere on the map. And if you've searched for a specific
address, there'll be an orange "pin" on the map to show you where that
specific address is, so you can drop your man there.
go to street view, where you are seeing what the little man would see,
if he were standing at that point. Here's a view I see at the end of my
commute every day (this is Keystone Drive, Burbank).
when you're in street view, you can use the circle icon at the upper
left to rotate. If you click any of the four arrows around the circle,
you can look up, down, left or right. And if you hover your cursor over
the street, you'll see white arrows that allow you to go down the street
or up the street to see what's around you. Here's the last bit of my
commute every morning :
Burbank's a place I know really well and I could research easily, if my
story took place there. But it doesn't. So I've used Google maps - not
only to check out how the location where my story takes place looks
- but also to research details such as how the garbage cans look there,
what kinds of trees and plants grow there, how wide the roads are, what
kinds of materials the houses are built from, etc. Google maps has
allowed me to spend hours immersing myself in the world where my
characters have spent their (fictional) lives, and without being able to
visit there, I don't know how else I would've figured this stuff out.
could have just made it up, but for anyone that lives there or has ever
visited there, they'd know it was false. And I honestly think it would feel false to every reader - there's no replacement for the authenticity of actually knowing all this stuff.
The hard part about research is knowing how to use
the information once you've gotten it. After all, a story isn't a
documentary. It's still a work of fiction. In the example of researching
dragons I mentioned earlier, unless your idea is just about documenting
how dragons might actually work, you probably will never actually
articulate everything you've learned about how dragons might actually
work within your story. Ideally, your research has provided you with
some ideas of how to make your dragons look like they might actually be
able to exist and really work, as well as maybe some story ideas about
what happens when dragons get sick, what conditions they might be able
to breathe fire under, what weaknesses they might have that may allow a
hero to defeat them, etc. You want to use your research to make your
world feel more authentic and real. Research is supposed to give you
more story ideas and open up new possibilities that you've never thought
about. What you don't want is to feel overwhelmed and
overburdened by the research. Doing research may show you that one or
more of your ideas actually won't work, which can be discouraging, but
the encouraging part is that it should open up many new alternatives to
Also, there will always be a moment
where your research contradicts what you're trying to do with the story,
and you'll have to make a decision as to whether you're going to
re-think your story or just ignore that part of the research. There's no
story in the world that is 100% truthful and real to life. After all,
like I said, a story isn't a documentary. At some point it departs from
reality and enters the world of fiction.
I like to
think of it as an 80/20 rule. In general, if your story is about 80%
accurate I think you can fudge the other 20% (just a rule of thumb -
every story is different).
Take "Raiders of the Lost
Ark", for example. There's a lot of fictional things in the movie, but
all the inspiration for the story and a lot of the details are grounded
in reality. The work Indiana Jones does as an archaeologist is
definitely based in reality - in the beginning we see him exploring a
temple in a South American temple. There are temples in South America,
obviously, and a lot of the details of how the temple looks and works
are probably based in reality. It's the extra details - like Jones's
comrades betraying him, the bad guys who are on his trail, and the
details of his narrow escape, as well as the layer Jones brings to it
with his personality and character, that lift it beyond documentary and
into an amazing work of fiction. But the realistic details give it a
grounded sense that makes it feel real and make us sit on the edge of
our seat as we watch his narrow escapes. If the temple felt like a
phony, made up place, none of this would work.
details of the story are also definitely grounded in reality: there was
an Ark of the Covenant, rumored to have mythical powers; it was believed
by many to be hidden somewhere in the Middle East; Hitler did have an
interest in the occult and was looking for items like that during the
second world war, etc.
Chances are there's never been an
archaeologist who was exactly like Indiana Jones or did things the way
he did....but the realistic framework of the story and locales enable
the audience to buy the more fantastic elements of the story.
There are a few pitfalls that I see people
fall into when they're in the research phase. The biggest problem with
research is that it can be hard to know when to stop researching and actually get to work. There's always
more research to do than can realistically be done, and some people
just stay in "research mode" forever. This can be tempting because writing
is terribly hard work involving constant decisions and wrestling with
all the difficult things that writing a story involves. Research can be
more fun because it isn't usually as hard as writing is - you're
just taking in information (and hopefully interesting information at
that). Hopefully you'll find a spot where you can start working and
still keep doing research at the same time. For me, the way to balance
this is to always be thinking about your story while you're doing the
research - force yourself to jot down story and character ideas at the
same time you're taking notes for your research. Make sure there's
cross-pollination between the two.
The other problem I
see is that people do their research, and then set it aside and start
working on their story, and the two processes don't affect each other -
the research doesn't make any impact on the story. If the research works
properly, it should spark a ton of story ideas and make you see your
characters in a new light. If you find that the research isn't having an
affect on your story, I'd say sit back and take another look at the
area you're researching...maybe you're on the wrong path and you should
try looking at the subject from another angle, or research a different
Or maybe your story just isn't right and needs to
be shifted in a way that relates to the research. Maybe your characters
and story just aren't the right ones for the world you're interested
Or maybe you just have to keep plugging away on the path you're on and the connections will become clear later.
I know this might all seem frustratingly vague, but
everyone (and every project) works differently, and always remember that
every project explores its share of dead ends and goes in circles for a
time. If you keep pushing, you'll find a way forward, and at the same
time - trust me - nobody ever feels like their story is 100% solid and
figured out (unless they're fooling themselves). Writing a story is a
constant process of questioning what you've done, backtracking,
re-thinking and re-writing. That's the only way to make it better! And
what seem like a dead end today may come back and inform the story at a
The other problem with research is that -
let's face it - to us artists, doing all this research is
counter-intuitive. For me personally, I started my own personal project
as a way to get myself to draw in my free time because I don't
really draw at work anymore. But as I got more and more into my story I
had to do more and more research....when what I really wanted to do was
start drawing! But at the same time I knew all that drawing would be
meaningless without the research to make it feel authentic.
So that's why my advice to not necessarily to write about what you know, but what you're interested in.
That way, doing the research will interest you and it won't turn into a
boring chore that you have to wade through. As we all know, writing a
story is incredibly hard and can be tedious at the best of times. Most
stories get abandoned at some point, so give yourself the best chance
you can to succeed and stick with it by picking a world to research that
you'll stay interested in for the long haul.
Of course, there's always the other way to do it: the approach Steve Purcell took, in "Sam and Max: Freelance Police".