UofL Writing Center

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Write What You Know: Researching for Fiction

Jenny Kiefer, consultantDSCN3660

All creative writers have likely heard the phrase “write what you know.” But fiction would be comprised of a fairly boring (though surreal) collection if authors were limited solely to experiences they had personally experienced. Historical fiction would be nonexistent. So how can you write what you know if it’s something you haven’t experienced? Research! Research probably reminds you more of writing a scholarly essay than a short story. Fiction is a made-up story, right? So why should you research for something you’re creating?

There are many reasons why research can benefit your creative writing. The main reason would be to provide verisimilitude (a fancy word for believability) and credibility. Readers can likely tell when you’re winging it, and even small errors can bring the reader out of your story. They shouldn’t believe your story actually happened, but they should believe it could have happened. Further, small, specific details can make your story entirely more believable. As a knitter, for a visual example, I immediately find fault with a movie or TV show when knitting is animated wrong. Not only am I drawn out of my immersion in the story, but I can’t help but wonder: the animators or creators couldn’t have spent ten minutes watching a video or learning what it looks like to knit?

Another reason to research is to learn more about your characters or setting. During the research project, you will probably uncover interesting and new details and facts that will improve upon your existing character or setting. (Unfortunately, sometimes a detail you wanted to include is actually incorrect and you have to put it away for later use.) Even if you don’t use every little thing you uncover–and you likely won’t need to–it will still make your story more realistic. For example, if you’re researching Air Force bombs, you might find a lot of technical information that will give you a good idea of how to write about their destruction, even if you don’t tell the reader that it fell at 600 feet per second.

So what are some methods you can use?

  • Internet. The internet is probably the most obvious source–but it is usually better for smaller research tasks. YouTube Videos can be useful for mechanical and technical tasks like crafts, cooking, how to load a gun, etc. Google Maps can help you see a far-away place and “walk around” by using the street view.

  • Documentaries can provide factual and visual information on a topic.

  • Memoirs can provide a personal and narrative aspect to your subject.

  • Newspapers can provide historical information and editorials can illuminate social opinions of certain times.

  • Relevant museums, places, or restaurants can give you a hands-on experience without traveling (through time or space). Eating at a French restaurant can help you describe French food, for example.

  • Interviews will allow you to ask specific, pointed questions about someone’s real life experience.

Research is a necessary tool when crafting a work of fiction, if you want to create a believable story. You might even end up discovering that you are having fun researching–just be sure you actually get around to writing!

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