7 Tips for Using Hands-On Research to Enrich Your Writing
by Delilah S. Dawson
They say, “Write what you know,” which is why my next book is about killing monsters in 1800s Texas. Not that I’ve ever killed anything bigger than a wolf spider, but I know what it’s like to spend a long, painful day in the saddle. When you’re writing about a new world, your readers will have an easier time making the jump from reality to fantasy if you can use telling details to win their trust. And that means that you should travel to new places and seek experiences and local culture that will enrich your writing. The key? Using all your senses.
Delilah S. Dawson
1. See the place.
Traveling allows you to soak up the visual backdrop of a new place. If you grew up in the country, it’ll be hard to write a big city since you’ve never looked up at a looming skyscraper. Visiting the place you’re writing about will inform you of what the people wear, what they hang on the walls, what sidewalk vendors sell, what colors the mountains are in the distance. I’m from Georgia, and I’ll never forget what it felt like to see the Alps for the first time, to climb the stairs of the Duomo in Milan, or to take a ferry to Santorini. Mountains are so much bigger than I’d imagined, and the Mediterranean is such a specific crystal blue. The mental photographs you’ll take while traveling will make your descriptions richer and more specific.
2. Taste the food.
Even if you’re not writing Game of Thrones-style banquet orgies, place-specific food still plays a big part in any story. If you’ve never tried to make coffee by a campfire or roast meat on a stick, you’re going to have trouble describing the process your character goes through and how satisfying their end result is. I’ll never forget what a wakeup call it was the first time I had breakfast in France— baguette with Nutella and hot chocolate. Or that summer in Greece, when we had fresh cherries over ice. Or a bag of hot chestnuts in Florence in January. Wherever you go, find out what the locals eat and try it with an open mind.
3. Feel the experience.
Thanks to TripAdvisor and Yelp, it’s easy to find place-specific activities that can inform your writing. Go ziplining over the jungle, go for a ride with a cop, watch an autopsy, try spinning wool or dipping candles. Take a horseback riding lesson or a short trip in a hot air balloon. Save up to go on a safari or just ride the camel at the zoo for six dollars. For almost any activity you’re going to use in your book, there’s a way to experience it yourself for under a hundred dollars.
That goes for clothes, too. Personally, I feel like you shouldn’t write about corsets until you’ve spent a day wearing one. Try dancing in a ball gown or tying a cravat. Go to the RenFaire and try chainmail. Clothes affect how you move, what you do with your time, where you sit, and how you feel overall. Visit the dealer room of any Comic Con to try costume pieces that translate to your work.
4. Feel the discomfort.
I once threw a Romance novel across the room because the pampered main character lost her virginity in a filthy, abandoned hovel on a bed of loose straw. Have you felt real straw? So not sexy.
Discomfort is part of life—now, in the far less hygienic past, and even in space in the future. If your character spends all day sweating in a saddle in too-small boots, they’re going to have a hard time walking, much less killing vampires. If your character gets in a fight, they’re going to have bruises. And shouldn’t James Bond have jet lag basically all the time? Capturing an experience means paying homage to the good and the bad with careful attention to the realistic consequences of their physical experience.
5. Listen to crowds, listen to the silence.
It makes a big difference if you’re awakened by barking dogs, a crowing rooster, Big Ben, songbirds, or a blaring alarm. The sounds of a city are entirely different from the sounds of a mountain cabin. Even the birds sing differently in different places. Is your character in a city that never sleeps or on a spaceship so quiet that she’s going mad? Adding place-specific sounds to your story help us feel what your character is feeling and give us a flavor for the culture and setting.
6. Smell the air.
Whether you’re describing the hot garbage smell of New York in August or the clean pine smell of the mountains in autumn, your descriptions of scent will add one more facet to your character’s experience. It’s hard to describe the scent of a desert or ocean if you’ve never been there. The smell of horses is entirely different from the scent of cows, pigs, camels, or elephants. Rain smells different when it hits hot concrete at night as compared to an aluminum roof on a cool morning. If you have a difficult time describing scents, I would recommend taking a wine tasting class, which really helps tease apart different notes in a way that translates to the world of smell.
7. Learn the lingo.
Without googling, can you name the device used to move yarn through the warp and weft of a loom? Can you identify the parts of a saddle? Do you know the parts of a gun? Using the right words—not necessarily the proper words—helps convince your readers that you’re enough of an expert to write about a topic. And the best way to learn the right lingo is to experience it for yourself and ask the true expert tons of questions. Wikipedia is great but not always accurate, and absorbing word choice from other books won’t always guide you in the right direction. There’s simply no better source than firsthand knowledge.
And the other good news? If you have income from your writing, trips and adventures used as research are considered tax deductible. Win-win!
Delilah S. Dawson, author of WAKE OF VULTURES (Oct. 2015, Orbit), written as Lila Bowen. Delilah is the author of the Blud series, SERVANTS OF THE STORM, HIT, and STAR WARS: THE PERFECT WEAPON. She teaches writing classes at LitReactor and has received the Steampunk Book of the Year and May Seal of Excellence for 2013 for WICKED AS SHE WANTS. Find her online at www.whimsydark.com