How to write a book · The writing business

How to write what you don’t know – research tips for writers

6930840018_583f784d83Ideally we’d all write from personal experience, but most of us have much bigger imaginations than our pockets, lives, bravery levels or the laws of the land can accommodate. So we have to wing it from research.

Ghostwriting is the ultimate rebuke to the idea that you write what you know. We pretend all the way, even down to our identity, outlook and heart. When I was ghosting I became a dab hand at travel by mouse – there was no way the publisher paid enough for me to jet to my book’s location. Or would spring me out of jail.

So here are my tips for bridging the experience gap.

Good first-hand accounts

Obviously the web is full of blogs about just about anything. They’ll give you up-close, spit-and-sweat details from those who are living the life. But look further afield. Good memoirs and novels will not only provide raw material, they’ll show how to bring a place alive on the page.

Guides for writerNot really undeads

There are scores of books published for writers who want to bone up on unfamiliar areas – whether crime, ways to kill or die, historical periods and what might be possible in steampunk. Or how to write a vampire novel. Some of you may know I’m an obsessive equestrian, and Dave’s roleplaying fraternity used to ask me constant questions about what you could do with horses until I wrote this piece for them.

What everybody else may already know

If there are famous books or movies that tackle your subject or feature your key location, get acquainted with them. Some readers hunt down every story that features their favourite keywords. They will not be impressed if you miss an obvious location for a murderer to hide a body, or an annual festival that should muck up your hero’s plans.


Flickr is wonderful for finding travellers’ snaps. But don’t discount professional photography. The best captures the emotional essence of a place, not just the visual details. I wrote one novel set in India and found a book of photographs of the monsoon. Those exquisite images of deluge gave me powerful, dramatic scenes.

Before the days of broadband, my go-to was National Geographic on searchable CD-ROM. I bought it as a Christmas present for Dave many years ago and probably you can now get the same thing on line. Sublime photography and descriptive writing that will get your fingers tapping.

Befriend an expert

Misapprehensions are inevitable if you’re appropriating others’ experiences. If possible, tame an expert you can bounce ideas off – especially if you’ve hung a major plot point on your theoretical understanding. When ghosting, I could ring my ‘authors’ for advice, but they weren’t always available so I found other sources to get my facts straight.

You’ll be surprised where these experts could be hiding. I never noticed my neighbourhood had a diving shop until I needed to write scenes featuring scuba. They were flattered and excited when I asked if I could pick their brains for a novel. When I was working on My Memories of a Future Life, a friend mentioned her family knew one of the BBC Young Musicians of the Year. Voila – I had an introduction to a concert pianist. Right now, I’m recruiting high-altitude climbers and pop musicians. Say hi in the comments if you know any.

Thanks for the travel pic moyan_brenn

What do you use to write what you don’t know? Share your tips in the comments! And do you have any research needs at the moment? Appeal for help here and you may find your perfect partner!


55 thoughts on “How to write what you don’t know – research tips for writers

  1. This blog is timely for me. I’m struggling to write a book about which I appear to know absolutely nothing & I’m finding the research a bit overwhelming. The fact that you are an “Obsessive equestrian” has just got you added to my hit list. I’ll be in touch. 😉

    By way of returning the favour – Roger Sanderson is an author who used to climb. (He writes as Gill Sanderson.) I don’t know if he did high altitude climbing but he was the authority who OK’d the climbing scenes in EMOTIONAL GEOLOGY for me. I can’t find his website but you could contact him through the RNA.

    1. Linda, you are most welcome to pick my brains about the horsey obsession. I can probably give you more information than you can bear.
      Thanks for Roger – Gill. I thought I’d found all the novels about climbing but I’ll check him out. And your Emotional Geology just got added to my reading list.

  2. A small addendum to your horse info( which for a non rider was pretty comprehensive) In Lesotho where the horse is the only form of transport ( and I grew up) there is a fifth gait called the tripple or trippel… or maybe just triple) because it has a three rhythm..a very slow canter with the hind legs and a slow trot with the front, net effect… a smooth ride, much faster than a walk, less tiring than a trot ( no posting!) and basuto ponies all do it and can keep it going for miles of mountainous terrain…so you just sit and they cover a lot of ground. Ah those days when the horse was king!

    1. Philippa, I didn’t know about the tripple! I know of variations to the trot. Icelandic ponies do a super-fast thing called the Tolt, though I don’t know the leg order. And of course there are the American pacers. I decided not to include those in the gamer notes in case my readers’ heads exploded. 🙂

  3. This post is timely for me, Roz. My WIP takes place in France between the wars (Paris and the countryside / canals). I’ve never been to France. So that was putting me off. Also it’s not like that era hasn’t been covered by master writers. 😛 Intimidating to say the least.
    Thank you for the tips. They will come in handy.

  4. Hi Roz, thanks for your post, great as always. I’m writing an historical story and it can get depressing trying to make sure I have all the info correct for the era.
    As for your climbing, last year I went to my niece’s graduation and there was guy there who’d climbed Mount Everest, he was a great speaker and seemed a genuine sort. Here’s his website 🙂

  5. Awesome! I took a break from a story I’m working on that has me stumped, and found your blog. Thank you for the tips! I appreciate the suggestions and will surely use them!

  6. Hi Roz – really really helpful post again, thank you. I’m sure this snippet will make it into the NYN sequel … I’ve filed for future reference 😉

  7. by pop, how pop do you mean? I know loads of musicians and though most of them are on the rock/ drum n bass side of things, some are on the folky end of the spectrum – so I can give you no end of info about how roadies set up at an arena, but wouldn’t have the first clue how a boy band is put together

      1. Just give me a shout any time. Happy to help any way I can personally (I used to have a column for an indie music mag so I’m more Cameron Crowe than Mick Jagger) or put you in touch with anyone.

  8. Your “My Lovely Horse” article is fantastic! Thanks for sharing the link. I bookmarked that one and can put it to work immediately in my WIP. The RPG orientation is highly suitable to fantasy writing as well.

    In retrospect, I think did an okay job with my first book. In that one, my paint (skewbald to you) horse Patches did not always behave perfectly. Also, in the situations where you might expect him to behave badly, I explained why he didn’t. In my WIP, the behavior of the horses could add to the tension and the sense of peril in certain key scenes.

    Thanks for giving me some ideas!

    1. In the spirit of the “expert cooperative,” I can offer my expertise as a database software developer. I also know a fair amount about the flora and fauna of the Pacific Northwest (North Idaho, specifically) and the behavior of snow at different temperatures (something I wish I knew less about).

      1. DRMarvello, I’d love some info and tips about the behavior of snow at different temperatures. I’m writing a fantasy story that’s set partly in northern Finland and partly in a fantasy world with a similar climate. (I live in a place where we get snow flurries about once very other year and that’s it.) I’d love some first-hand info about different types of snow and how to live with it!

        And thanks, Roz, for this awesome post and for offering up the comments for networking! 🙂 I just tweeted this post.

  9. Love the idea of a research cooperative. I know quite a bit about quilting; if anyone has research questions on that topic, I’m happy to share.

    The best research move I ever made was to study language. Obviously, that only applies if one is researching a different culture, but culture is so bound up with language that the two cannot be separated. In English, for example, we have one word for brother. In Korean, older brother has its own word–a direct connection to the importance of age and maleness. Also, instead of saying “my mother,” one would say “our mother” in Korean–inclusive so that all may feel part of the community, in direct opposition to the western emphasis on individuality. As long as you’re part of the group, you feel the warmth, but step outside accepted norms, and suffer an overpowering isolation. These are just a couple of the many research insights I gained through language study and was able to incorporate into my novel. And later, when I made my first journey to Korea, my language teacher put me in touch with people who proved invaluable to my understanding of culture.

    1. Deb, that’s so interesting. I’ve never studied anything as exotic as Korean. My language experience is very limited to French and German. But I remember being fascinated by the different words both those languages have for the verb ‘to know’. Germans and French feel it is important to distinguish between factual knowledge and knowing a person. In English we’ve lost that.

  10. I could offer the world of self building, drains, foundations, mortar, joists, and the ridicule of ( and kindness towards) a woman on a roof from the passing white van men, and the honest Joes in the world of the trading estates. Also a bit about hosting chamber music concerts and the people likely to attend them, and the others likely to sabotage and the ingenious ways in which this can be done.
    I hope this wannabe co-operative thrives more than another I established called ‘The Pub Club’ to offer talks, lectures, music and you-name-it in the bowling alley of a local. Fabulous programme, more ‘experts’ to give all they knew for free. No attendants! And nothing else happening in darkest Somerset!

  11. I can offer the world of medicine. I’ve worked on a medical magazine for so long that I can write very convincing doctors. I’ve edited so much material about handling patients that I could probably pass that module of the MRCGP.

  12. I’m a big fan of pre-19th century European (and some American) folk music and folk instruments. I’m by no means an expert, and most of my knowledge comes from internet research, but I’ve gathered quite a bit of info, websites, and such during the past few years. My parents are also musicians/historians, so I grew up with a base knowledge of that sort of thing. I could probably at least point somebody in the right direction if they had a question.

    And on a different note, one of the characters in my current WIP is an aurora scientist and works on making audio recordings of the northern lights. Any aurora experts out there? Or anyone have details about equipment and/or computer software for audio field recordings in general?

  13. Great post Roz . I really enjoy research and have worked on two 20th century historical novels, one in 1940’s Italy and one in NYC.(’69 & 52) Novels written during the time period I found incredibly helpful, not only for the subject matter(has to relevant obviously) but also for the language used back in the day. I also found that , particularly for the Italian research during WWII, the local Museums in Bologna were incredibly helpful. People really are generous when it comes to information sharing sometimes. Visiting the location was essential, and reading books in Italian -as best I could – was really useful too. Music is another area to get a sense of the time &/or place. So amongst other artists, I now know all about Trio Lescano, who are the Italian Andrew Sisters!
    Research co-op does sound good.:-)
    Thanks so much for the post Roz.

    1. Thanks, Andrew! That’s a great point about getting the flavour of the period from novels. I saw a post recently that emphasised how that not only applies to language and idioms, but to attitudes. When goods were scarce, people hardly threw anything away – and that came out in so many ways. Even now, my parents’ generation can’t understand my generation’s liking for removing clutter. To them, clutter is something that might be useful one day.
      Interesting that you mentioned music. I used music a lot to get the feel and rhythms of foreign places. And I take it you’ve seen my series on my other blog, The Undercover Soundtrack?

  14. I just linked to this awesome blog post in my latest blog post, where I wrote about some of the areas of research that I’m doing for my fantasy novels:

    I also read the article about horses that you have linked to in your post. Wow, what detail! I did a little bit of riding when I was a child and spent some time around horse people, but clearly I missed a few important things! A valuable resource that I’m sure I’ll be coming back to! 🙂

  15. My first novel is set in the 1930s (The Midwife of Hope River, Aug. 2012, WM. Morrow). I didn’t think of it as historical fiction…or I would have been too intimidated to start. Photos, the Sears and Roebuck catalogue for 1929 and googling phrases like “living through the great depression” or “on the farm during the great depression” or even “a midwife during the great depression” brings first person accounts. I had to do research for every page, but it was fun.

  16. Great and very useful post. It is timely too. I found your blog through the link at The Bookshelf Muse. Thanks for the tips shared. I will definitely get the National Geographic CD-Rom.

    1. Thanks, Irene! Funnily enough, I don’t know if I’d have found National Geographic so easily if the web had been my first port of call. It might have been drowned out by more obvious and attention-grabbing sources. Lucky that I started writing long ago…

  17. A friend who makes a point of climbing the highest landmass on each continent 😉 Has attempted Everest twice…
    Research on the Internet is so seductive… My novel is set in the 1970’s, involves two psychiatrists and their patient. Or is it client? Better go check that out… And was their a seat belt law at that time? And what foods would have been served at a cocktail party? Whoosh…. There goes my writing time…. Watching movies set during the time period is also a good way to procrastinate!

    1. Thanks for the Everest tip, Cathy! I am in awe of anyone who has made a serious bid to climb that thing.
      As for runaway research… good on you for even wondering if there was a seatbelt law. Now you mention it, I remember TV ads when it was introduced. Now I take it for granted. Devilish details…

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