Writing what you don’t know – How to be a lawyer, doctor, and a 19th century pirate

A big part of writing fiction novels involves pretending like you know a whole lot about topics you have a very limited knowledge of. Perhaps your main character is a lawyer or doctor, or a 19th century pirate. Each require you, the author, to know a bit about their careers or background, but sometimes it can be difficult to get you hands on the information you need.

1. Researching Techniques

There are so many different researching resources these days to find out more about the topics you’re covering. Whether it be a brick-and-morter library or just by searching online.

You’re bound to find something on google – although, some topics can be harder to find information on than others. So you might need to get a little creative. For example, a novel I’ve been working took my characters off on the back of an 1800’s sailing ship. But I knew absolutely nothing about sailing in general, let alone anything about sailing in the 1800’s. Searching online proved difficult as most things were explained in a way that made little sense to me. I found different ship types, names, where they came from, but how did I know if I had a realistic one? Over a few weeks of researching I had to change tactics, the traditional “google-different-variatations-of-the-same-search-query-and-hope-for-the-best” wasn’t really working. Instead I turned to Tumblr – a strange option I know.

But Tumblr is full of people passionate about particular topics, and often they might be experts too.

I searched around a little and found someone who loved ships, I gave them the little information I had and got some good directions in return. I ended up focusing on Brigantine Ships. Now that I could google and come up with some great information on. From there I used YouTube to discover what it would be like onboard for the crew to live and work. (I also discovered there’s actually one last old-fashioned full-functioning Brigantine Ship that sails people around the world). I learned how many people would be required to run a ship like that, how far they could travel, what the crew ate, what they did when people died on board, even how they went to the loo (no toilets on board!).

Sometimes, when it comes to research to really find the gold nuggets of information you need, you might have to alter the way you search. For topics more akin to law and medicine, you could try forums and discussion boards, or perhaps you’ll luck into finding a brain surgeon with a dedicated Tumblr open to asks.

It’s important to keep an open mind when you go into these conversations, there may be certain aspects you’re set on learning about (so make sure to ask about them) but be open to discovering new things about your topic that you hadn’t previously considered. You might even find you get extra inspiration from them.

2. Media Sources

Yes, we’re talking broadly about media like movies, tv shows, and science fiction, to the history channel, animal planet, and documentaries. You can learn a lot from each of these sources in various ways, and some are perhaps more reliable and legitimate than others.

Movies, TV shows, science fiction, and books might not always come from fact themselves, but they do give you an idea of what people are willing to believe – and they can offer inspiration that might prompt you in your own writing endeavours. Of course you can’t copy plots and characters straight into your own stories. But they can offer you ideas to get you writing. So, watch movies and shows across all genres and take notes of all the bits that grab your attention. Also consider – is it fact or is it fiction? But also, does it bother you if it isn’t fact?

Documentaries and channels like Animal Planet and History are a bit more reliable than the above. They can give you background information form verifiable sources that can spur your writing onward and give it credibility. A great example of a writer who was inspired by history is George R.R Martin with Game of Thrones. He used the Wars of the Roses, a series of civil wars between the the House of York and the House of Lancaster, to drive the massively popular series.

3. People

Old ones, young ones, smart ones, experts… You can learn a lot from the people around you. Everyone sees the world differently, everyone learns the world differently. There are cultural differences, generational differences, and simply different point of views. Irregardless of similarities between backgrounds, individual people are as unique as the trees. So, talk to as many people as you can and learn their stories, learn their ways of thinking and seeing the world to help you build out complex and believable characters and plots.

You can do this by looking online for discussion boards and the like, but some of the best conversations come from people you meet in real life. Consider your neighbours, friends, and colleagues, to customers at a grocery store, people at a retirement village, or someone you meet fleetingly when you’re away on a holiday.

4. Take creative liberty

This is code for make stuff up. Use your imagination to fill in the gaps where your knowledge and science doesn’t fit, but don’t be afraid to also take creative liberty when something real might need tweaking to fit well within the context of your story.

When it comes to the reader, especially science fiction, most readers are willing to suspend disbelief – to an extent. First you have to create a basis that is believable, it must be something that readers can pretend could be true. Then, you can mix it in with the unbelievable and your readers will accept it as fact, at least while they read your novel. So, take creative liberty and craft your work of art into something magical but perhaps a little unbeliveable. After all it’s a work of fiction – as an author it’s your right.

“…it was agreed, that my endeavors should be directed to persons and characters supernatural, or at least romantic, yet so as to transfer from our inward nature a human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”

– Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Whatever technique you chose to undertake your research, keep in mind that it’s similar to many other undertakings – you have to pick two: good, fast, or cheap. And the results of your choice will be noticeable in your work.

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