One of the most important things a writer must do besides actually write a story is to do research. Nothing can ruin a book, short story or non-fiction/opinion piece more than messing up on the details. A lazy researcher makes for a mediocre writer.
As I research my current project, a story that crosses time to the era during and around The Great War and its aftermath, I’ve been burying myself in books and articles about the battles, troop movements, the commanders, the subsequent Spanish Flu pandemic. I’m perusing books of photography, reading collections of wartime poetry and even collections of letters sent home from the different theaters of war. All of this material will give me a better grip on what the people of that era were enduring as they lived through those monumental times.
Granted, writing a story out of time and in such complex conditions requires a great deal of research and quite frankly, I might be going overboard with it. But here’s the thing… I am profoundly interested in The Great War, and therefore, the research is a joy, not a burden. When the book is finished, the characters that I create will accurately portray the attitudes and experiences of the people of that period.
It follows then that good writing, dependent on good research, naturally emanates from an author who writes about a subject, in a genre, during a time period that he or she is extremely interested in. Writers set themselves up for failure when they choose to write something they wouldn’t read themselves.
Before I go on, I must say that I’m not advocating limiting yourself to just one style of writing. For example, nothing says a romance writer can’t write science fiction. Or a science fiction writer can’t author a noir thriller. It’s important to test and stretch your writing skills, get out of your comfort zone. But, you have to love it! You can get into trouble if you choose to write something with which you don’t relate or in which you have no interest. Why would a writer do that?
Trends in fiction or pop culture can have an impact on what you choose to write about. If you feel compelled to follow those trends, maybe even for perceived financial reasons, the result will be a body of work that is not backed by your enthusiasm, your fascination and your love for the words you have penned. The research will be a drudgery, and likely will lack the scope and depth necessary to give the bones of the book flesh and blood. Without your passion fueling it, the project may bog down and never be completed. That, my friends, is a waste of your precious time. The question is how much and what type of research should you do?
As an overview, here are some items that may need to be researched for your story and/or book.
Time and space/place – if writing in a period of history, a geographical location you are not familiar with, or both, extensive research will be needed to create the landscape, set the scene and the mood for the story.
Weather/climate – get your seasons straight! Related to place/space, weather for the locale should be appropriate for the seasons. It will determine what clothing your characters will wear, have an impact on their activities, driving conditions and so forth.
And speaking of driving conditions… what sort of transportation is common in the place where your story is set? Make sure buses, trains and subways actually provide service to that city. Is there an airport? Do flights really connect to the places where your characters travel? Does everyone depend on automobiles for transportation? If so, on what side of the road do they drive? Where does the driver sit?
What is their race/ethnicity? Is it the same as yours? If not, don’t make assumptions, or worse, write cliches and stereotypes. There are resources for writing a character of a different ethnic background online. Even better, interview a friend or coworker and get first-hand knowledge.
Even within a country there may be great regional differences. Language or dialects, religion, socioeconomic conditions can vary widely within a large nation.
Employment – don’t give your characters a job you know nothing about. Alternatively, make sure you have access to someone in their particular field that you can ask questions and from whom you can get detailed feedback.
Age – an older writer may have trouble relating to the experiences of a modern day child/teen/young adult, unless of course, they have children that age. Additionally, a young writer will not know what it feels like to be an old person. Ask parents, grandparents, older neighbors and friends.
Even habits like smoking, drinking, gambling… or exercise regimens like running, weight lifting, or sports like golf or tennis might need to be researched to get the terminology correct.
That is by no means an exhaustive list but it may give you an idea of the details that, even if they are not directly included in the narrative of your story, will give it the sound and feel it needs to be authentic and entertaining. I hope this demonstrates how being fascinated by your subject matter will make research a joy and not a burden!