If we literally followed the advice to, "write what you know," we wouldn't have stories about boy wizards, ruby slippers, or epic wars sweeping across a galaxy. Of course, we might argue that the person who imagined those things does, in fact, know them. Writer's face a bigger challenge when they want to write about something, like a city or a profession, with which they have no experience but others know very well.
There are many ways to learn about something unfamiliar: books, travel, interviews, etc. Between its search engine, maps, and street view, Google makes it particularly easy to pick up a passing familiarity with a topic or take a virtual tour of a place.
But the particular problem for writers is that we generally don't have time to become experts on the topic. So how do you know when you've done enough research to use the unfamiliar thing in your story without giving the people who actually know the thing reason to throw your book across the room?
I use the following guidelines:
I have a longer discussion about research techniques when writing about the unfamiliar on my blog, The Laws of Making.
- Your research isn't done until you've discovered something surprising about the topic.
- Your research isn't done until you can explain how the conventional wisdom is right and wrong.
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