Fiction contains at least a kernel of truth. The best fiction shows us our humanity. But, let’s not get lost in lofty goals. Even if you’re writing a fun, light story, it will be better if you anchor it in reality. That means if you set it in Florida, you capture the Sunshine State. It means if you describe the hero in a sports car, it has enough detail to “feel real.” Making the details of your story as real as possible makes it easier for the reader to get lost in the parts you do make up.
The type of tale you tell will determine how much research you must do. Obviously if you’re writing historical fiction, you’ll need to spend time on clothing, buildings, transportation, language, social mores, and more! This can be a research-heavy genre. Unless you’re a former detective or intelligence officer, if you write thrillers, you’ll need to know about police procedure and spy craft. The more actual science you know will help with science fiction, and so on. What are the best sources for research for the fiction writer?
Good old Dr. Google is free and at our fingertips. There’s so much information on any given topic these days that the Internet is your obvious source of information. I’ve looked up maps, photos, message boards, narratives, Wikipedia, manufacturers’ specs, and pretty much anything you can imagine. There’s often a YouTube video of places and things, where you can get a better sense for how things look.
However, I probably don’t need to tell you that the Internet often gives surface-level details, and if you want more information, you might need a better authority: like a book. The other trouble with the Internet is that it’s mostly passive (unless it’s a message board). You can’t necessarily ask questions and get custom answers. For that, you’ll need an expert.
The best way to learn what life is like for a firefighter is to talk to a firefighter. The same goes for any other career or hobby. I recently wrote a story involving sailboats. As much as I scoured videos and images, I couldn’t understand some of the nuts and bolts of how it’s done since I’ve never personally sailed. For that, I went to a friend who is also a sailing enthusiast. I’ve had writing colleagues who have shadowed detectives, and other people who’ve attended workshops from historians.
The easiest expert to contact is someone you know. It’s likely you’ll have follow-up questions, so make sure the person seems enthusiastic to help. Some people might not want to participate. That’s okay. Keep asking around. A lot of people are passionate about their job, and it’s flattering to have someone really want to know about it. Stay respectful of someone’s time, since they’re essentially doing you a favor.
Another way to access experts is to look for workshops or lectures on the subject. Many national writers’ organizations offer research workshops. For a small fee, you can enroll and learn about life in the ER, for instance. Usually this includes a question/answer session. Many writers’ organizations have symposia on research topics too. I once attended one that offered a course on Victorian-era wardrobe, complete with samples. An advantage here is that the folks offering their time to these workshops or conferences are often compensated by the organization.
If you’re asking for expert help, be respectful—even if it’s a friend. The best way to show respect is to pay people. If I only have a question or two, that’s one thing. If I need a complicated system explained multiple times, I try to show my gratitude with money. Nothing says “thank you” quite like cash. Usually it’s not a lot: maybe a $50 gift card or a $100 via PayPal. Remember, someone is taking time out of their busy schedule to accommodate you. Make sure they know how much you value them by giving them something in return. Insist on it, and you will have a great resource…and maintain your friendship.
As we’ve articulated: research for the fiction writer is crucial. There is a word of caution, however. Don’t overdo it to the point you’re paralyzed by the facts. Fiction is about “truth,” which isn’t quite the same thing. Don’t let facts inhibit you from creativity, but use them to bind your story to reality so that it’s believable.