In a previous post dated January 8, 2014, I stated that every aspiring author has been told to write about what you know.
Yet, some focus only on their existing knowledge, which is usually limited to their day jobs. Even though they might want to create the next great American legal thriller, they don’t believe they’re qualified to do it if they aren’t parading through courtrooms every day, hypnotizing juries with skilled wordplay. So they get stuck and never start. Or they force themselves to write about things that doesn’t excite them as much. Which means people won’t be excited to read them, either.
In case you find yourself in that situation, I’d like to save you some time. My previous post shared some things I learned as I wrote my first novel, Partners In Crime. The first step I outlined was to start with Data Research. Obviously, this is crucial, especially if you want to write about something in which you have little to no daily experience. People who don’t know what I do for a living usually think I’m a cop after they read my detective novel. Some express surprise when I tell them I’ve never worked in law enforcement. So gathering tons of data certainly helped me.
But that’s just the start.
Next, you have to:
I. Do your People research
- This is hard for introverts like me, but you need to socialize. Suppose you want to write that legal thriller, but you work as an aircraft mechanic. So how do you find out about life as a criminal defense attorney? Well, you could always commit a felony and meet one that way, but a better option is to find out where they hang out. So…
a) Ask around! In this example, start by asking friends and coworkers if they know any attorneys or paralegals. Someone always knows someone who knows someone. Ask for referrals or contacts if you can’t access your targeted people directly. Some of the best leads will come from those you least expect (it was an unexpected lead that helped me interview homicide detectives, go on ride-alongs, and visit crime scenes).
b) Join a local writer’s group. They are filled with people just like you, people yearning to share their colorful stories with the world. Every writer’s group I joined had someone who knew someone who I needed to talk to. You can find them on the internet or through sites like Meetup.com.
c) Go to writer’s conferences. These present an incredible wealth of knowledge. They will have workshops devoted to helping you improve your writing in your particular genre. They’ll have various subject matter experts serving as guest speakers and they’ll tell you what you need in order for your book to sound authentic.
d) Find trade shows or conferences where your subject matter experts are likely to attend. For example, I’ve met police officers at gun shows, martial arts and Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournaments, etc.
e) Find professional groups. If you’re that aircraft mechanic wanting to be the next John Grisham, network with attorney’s groups. There are a billion lawyers in this country, so you should be able to find some legal group nearby. Many of them have charitable functions, fundraisers, and other events open to the public that you can attend.
f) Be Honest. When you meet the people you need to, get them talking about themselves first. That warms them up. Then simply tell them you’re working on a book about ______ and you’d love to take them out to lunch to pick their brains. You’d be surprised at how helpful people are once you start talking to them. I haven’t had anyone turn down a free lunch yet.
II. Understand it’s all about the characters, not the research
- This is important. As a first-time published author, I initially felt I had to prove my research by stuffing my book with a billion details. But as I kept writing, I realized it was less about the details and more about the character interaction, plot, pacing, suspense, etc. Realistic details are important, but you don’t need all of them. Sprinkling a few authentic details here and there will do. While you still need to conduct your research and know these things, putting the right details in the right places at the right times will work wonders.
Now these are just the things that I’ve found to be helpful for me. There are plenty of other things that people can do to gather insight that helps them create great stories and smash the boundaries of their everyday lives. For those who have finished books, what are some ideas you’ve found helpful?
“you could always commit a felony…” bwahaha!!! excellent advice! And that ten to twenty years behind bars will provide the focus needed to get the writing done!! LOL.
Great advice James. I particularly need the reminder that I am not required to include all my research in my novel. I love research, and academia rewards research papers, but this is a different genre.
Thanks, Kathryn! Glad it helped. There are some folks who will go to the extreme, so you have to give a disclaimer on everything! I bet there is someone out there just crazy enough to immerse himself in prison so he can write about the experience. Not me. I don’t need to write a story that badly! I’m sure that with the storyline of your novel, that will be far more engrossing than the detailed research.