Last summer, I met with a journalist friend to ask questions about her craft. The character I was trying to develop was a journalist, so I asked my friend all about her daily work routine, in excruciating detail. She was bemused by my level of inquiry. After all, she commented at the end of the interview, fiction wasn’t like journalism: it didn’t matter if the facts weren’t accurate.
The truth is, the facts do matter in creative writing. No matter how hard you try to “write what you know,” eventually you will have to do research. Writers often do a great deal of research, but—unlike academics and journalists who attribute their sources—they have to make their writing look seamless. Otherwise, the worlds and characters they create would not seem real to their readers.
Believability is one key to keeping readers on the page. In order to be believable, a story has to be anchored to some aspect of the reader’s reality. The Harry Potter series belongs to the fantasy genre, but the main characters are school-aged kids who are grounded in reality: they shirk their homework, play practical jokes, envy classmates and sometimes hate their teachers.
Good writing lies in the details. If you’re writing dialogue for a Londoner, she’d better sound and act like a Londoner. If she’s a modern Londoner, for instance, she’s unlikely to say “Pip, pip, cheerio.” Instead of shepherd’s pie and ale, she might order a chicken tikka to go with her glass of Bordeaux.
Research makes all the difference between good writing and great writing. Fortunately, there are more resources available today than ever before to help writers hone their craft. Instead of purchasing a ticket to London—an expensive proposition if you aren’t J.K. Rowling—using apps like Google Earth, you can actually see panoramic photos of London streets. On YouTube, you can hear what different British accents sound like. There is a wealth of information now available on the Internet.
Old-fashioned methods still work, too. Peer reviewers (a parent, spouse or fellow aspiring writer) are great for pointing out things that don’t quite seem right or that you may have missed after your fifteenth revision. If you can’t find a willing victim to read your work, then there are lots of online peer review sites, like WritersCafe.
The one thing that no amount of technology can give you is more time, and research does take time. Life is increasingly busy, but if you can make writing a habit by eking out time to write (or research) on a regular basis, then that’s half the battle.