Fiction writers make things up. It’s our job, especially if we write science fiction, fantasy, or any type of speculative work. It’s also our job to convince readers to come willingly along on the adventure we’ve created for our characters. Readers want to be immersed in the story, not get pulled out by something that doesn’t sit right with them. Sometimes it’s a mistake only an expert in the field would know, like an incorrect date for an obscure historical event. Whatever the case, mistakes can be avoided when we do our homework. Good research can help.
Solid research on our part helps infuse our scenes with authenticity and makes our characters more believable. In my own science fiction series, I did a significant amount of research even though I’d set my story someplace outside of Earth, used advanced technology, and gave some of my characters empathic and telepathic powers. That research extended beyond a Google search, and yours can too. Here are some tips on how to bring authenticity to your fictitious worlds and made-up characters:
Ask an expert.
Sometimes our characters have a profession outside our own expertise. One of my characters is a pilot. Sure, he flies a space ship for a fictional galactic navy, but still, real people are familiar enough with military culture, flight, and even space flight that I had to be sure his scenes felt authentic. I asked a career military pilot and good friend to read through those sections and give me feedback. I also picked his brain over several lunches and family functions when needed. He was happy to share. Most experts will be if you behave professionally and courteously toward them and respect their time.
Visit the place.
I once hiked on a mountain range after a controlled burn. The landscape was otherworldly, with charred bark, ash, and only the barest glimpse of green poking through the scorched earth. This hellish setting featured in one of my post-apocalyptic short stories.
If you’re including a real place in your narrative, go there. Immerse yourself in the sights, sounds, and culture. Use all your senses to appreciate your surroundings. Later you’ll be able to sprinkle these details in effectively and authentically.
Experience it if you can.
Nothing beats first-hand experience. We all have interesting and varied experiences to bring to the table. I’ve done a lot of outdoor survival stuff, so when one of my characters is hiding out in the wilderness for weeks, I can call on that background to lend color and life to those scenes. When we haven’t experienced something, can we find a way to, or find a close substitute?
That pilot from my book I mentioned earlier, well he’s in a lot of space battles. I’ve definitely not been in any dogfights, either on Planet Earth or elsewhere, but there are some fun simulations that gave me a frame of reference for what he might be thinking and feeling from the cockpit.
Libraries and museums are still a great place to learn.
The internet is great, and provides a wealth of information at our fingertips, but sometimes we need a little more. A friend writes dark historical fantasy, filled with folklore and nautical history. She once spent an entire day reading through ship logs at a whaling museum. The insight she gained from her glimpse into the lives of the captain and crew brought a layer of detail and richness her story wouldn’t have otherwise.
With a little extra effort, you can bring richness, authenticity, and depth to your story, and have some fun while you’re doing it!