Many writers receive the age-old advice to ‘write what you know’. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always found that to be too limiting. My life is rather boring and probably wouldn’t make a good story, at least not one I want to write.
I don’t know anything about life on other planets, magical worlds, and I’ve never lived in a haunted house. I’ve never met a zombie, a vampire, or even an elf. I’ll bet the authors who write about those things haven’t either.
I think a more apt piece of advice would be to ‘know what you write’. For example, I write historical fiction. My books take place in fourteenth century Europe. I didn’t live back then, I don’t know what it was like. According to that advice, I shouldn’t be writing about it.
But that’s where I wanted my story to be set. Hmm, what’s an author to do? Since my time machine was out for repairs, I had to settle for researching the time period. I found some great books to read; one of my favorites was The Time Traveler’s Guide to the Fourteenth Century by Ian Mortimer. The author is a historian and he’s published many scholarly works, but he wrote this book for non-historians. In it, I learned what people ate and drank, what kind of furniture was inside their homes, how their homes were made, how their currency worked, what they wore and lots of other stuff.
This was a great starting point, but there was more I needed to learn. I had to study the kings and queens of the time, the religious leaders, which recorded events happened just before, during, and right after the time my story takes place. I pored over maps with boundaries that changed every couple of years. I found out how long it would take to get from France to England by foot, on horseback, and by boat.
I bought a DVD set of The Medieval World by Professor Dorsey Armstrong. I was able to hear the sounds of instruments that would have been played back then. She explained what the food would have tasted like and how they may have prepared it. This was all fascinating to learn and I almost felt as if I were living in the fourteenth century.
Once I began researching, it was difficult to stop. There is so much information and some of it conflicted. I still needed a bit more help. (Serendipity is an author’s best friend and something we quickly learn to rely on. Once you begin writing, it’s as if the universe conspires to help you.)
One fine day, Dr. Brook Ballard, a retired, medieval history professor, walked into the bookstore where I worked. We began to talk and I explained about the book I was writing. He agreed to be my historical advisor for my books. SCORE!
Dr. Ballard lent me source materials, read over my manuscript, pointed out inaccuracies, and answered my many questions. He told me to remove the forks from the table, since they hadn’t been invented yet. He has my undying gratitude for his assistance and his patience.
Tip: Advice from a recognized expert is priceless to an author, but you can’t just find one and pick their brain forever. Don’t waste their time with things you can find out on your own. You have to do the preliminary work yourself.
I know what you’re thinking. “That’s fine for history, but what about those other planets and magical worlds where there are no experts? What about those vampires, zombies, and elves?”
Great question! You’re going to love your research for this. There are actually three ways to go about ‘world building’. The first and easiest way is to build on worlds already created by your favorite authors. This is considered ‘fan fiction’, and it’s a perfectly acceptable way to get your feet wet writing science fiction, fantasy, or paranormal stories.
Let’s say you loved The Hobbit, as much I do, and didn’t want to leave that world. Using Tolkien’s world, Middle Earth, you could set different characters on a new adventure within Middle Earth. Your research for a project like this would be to study the world that Tolkien built. You would need to reread everything he wrote, study his maps, and pay attention to the rules of his world. (Rules like how the elves’ magic works compared to a wizard’s magic.)
The second way is to build your own world. This takes much longer, sometimes many years to create a world for a book like The Hobbit. In my opinion, this is what makes a true classic. J.K. Rowling did it with Harry Potter. Hogwarts with all of its rules and quirky staircases did not exist before she wrote it. Isn’t that mind-boggling?
Writing a book such as this is my highest goal. I’m not there yet, so the advice I can give is limited, but there are a few books on world building for science fiction and fantasy writers you can read for further information. How to Write Tales of Horror, Fantasy & Science Fiction edited by J.N. Williamson and Writing Science Fiction & Fantasy by the editors of Analog and Asimov’s Science Fiction, are both great starting points.
The third way, and probably the most useful, is to read many books similar to the one you want to write. Let’s say you want to write about dragons. You should read The Dragon Riders of Pern, by Anne McCaffrey, Christopher Paolini’s Eragon series and any other books about dragons (fiction or non-fiction), that appeal to you. What you are looking for during these readings is the mythology of dragon lure. What do they all have in common? What’s different? How do Chinese dragons differ from European dragons?
Then you can use that information to make your dragons ‘fit the mold’ so to speak, yet still be unique. For instance, maybe every dragon you’ve read about lays eggs, but you want your dragons to have live births, like mammals. In that case, you would need to explain to your reader why your dragons don’t lay eggs like the rest. If you make it believable, you’ve set your dragons apart from the others while still keeping true to the accepted mythology the fans of fantasy have already adopted as truth. This technique works with vampires, ghosts, zombies, aliens, elves, wizards and any being already immortalized in literature.
Although you are using the mythology of other fiction writers, you are not writing fan fiction by placing a different story in someone else’s world. Instead, you are building on the work of others who have come before you. Most of the books published today use this method.
You don’t have to write what you know, but you should know what you write. If you’re like me, you’ll probably find researching for a new book to be as much fun as writing it. Writers, by nature are smart and curious people. We have to know a bit about many things to make up a believable story.