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Mariah's avatar

How do you get familiar with something you want to write fiction about?

Asked by Mariah (25863points) January 23rd, 2015

The classic advice is “write what you know.”

I only know so much, though, and I don’t want to confine myself to only that. I would like to get to know other things so that I can write about them with an appropriate degree of sensitivity and empathy.

How would you go about this? One major thing for me will be to read a lot of first-hand accounts from people in similar situations to try to understand the feelings and nuances of being in their heads.

Know any good websites for reading first-hand accounts of people’s experiences? And what else would you recommend?

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12 Answers

Cruiser's avatar

Pick a theme or topic of this piece you want to write then do the research. You could also read books by other authors to get a feel for the many different approaches they took to create their story. As far as peoples experiences….I would just use Google to find them.

Then you could visit writing forums where you are sure to get ideas and the help you are looking for.

janbb's avatar

Yes, do your research and look for good personal narratives. “All the Light We Cannot See” is a great novel set in WW2. I heard it took the author 10 years to research and write it.

Mariah's avatar

Is there any specific type of research you’d recommend though? That’s my main question. I know I’ll need to do lots and lots of research!

Earthbound_Misfit's avatar

It depends what you’re writing. If you are writing a science fiction piece you’d want to read at least some scientific research. If you were setting a book in San Francisco in the 1930s you might read biographical material, journals, look at photographic material and film footage. For any genre you might interview people with knowledge of that time or field.

janbb's avatar

@Mariah @Earthbound_Misfit says – it will depend on what you want to write about. Tell me your topic and I can suggest some avenues.

Mariah's avatar

Ah, I was looking for more general advice…I don’t have a particular story idea right now.

I wrote a lot of sci-fi in the past and present and physics/science in general is something I feel well enough trained in to write about it decently.

In the future I’m thinking of doing more down to earth tales about people. That’s why I really want to understand what it’s like to live inside the head of someone else.

One topic that comes to mind frequently is mental illness; I’d like to be able to write a character with some kind of struggle in that department without being insensitive due to having only a limited range of personal experience in that.

janbb's avatar

@Mariah If you want some general advice, I’d suggest you find a good librarian and ask him/her when you know what you want. Don’t use Wikipedia for anything but overviews. If you are thinking about mental illness, there are many good personal memoirs you can read (I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, Girl Interrupted). But I would be a little hesitant personally to write from the point of view of someone such as a person of another race or with mental illness. Doing research on another time period or milieu might be safer for starters.

I’m teaching a course on time travel novels right now and thinking about the issues inherent in writing convincing time travel novels.

Earthbound_Misfit's avatar

I’d suggest starting by reading journals and bios written by or about people who have or are living with people with mental illness. Also read medical articles about the area of mental illness you want to focus on. Then talk to people living with that problem and those who interact with them. If you know someone who has strong experience in that field or a couple of people, ask if they’d be okay with answering questions you may have or who might read your drafts.

You want to be informed and avoid errors. You don’t need to be a total expert. Having someone with strong knowledge will help ensure accuracy.

JLeslie's avatar

I think it would be very difficult to write about what it’s like to be inside of the head of someone who is mentally ill, especially if the audience of your book will be mentally ill people with that very diagnosis. It would take tons of research and I think interviewing people who have the illness and maybe also talking to psychologists who treat might be helpful.

Is the mentally person going to be the main character? If not, then you wouldn’t need to understand them as well as you would need to understand how people react to them, which might be easier. Like, I don’t know what it is like to be an alcoholic or grow up in a house with an alcoholic, but I think I can easily identify with the disappointments, frustrations, lack of trust, and fears people who are around alcoholics experience.

Have you read a lot of fiction, or even non-fiction, where the main character is mentally ill? I would start there to be sure it is something that interests you enough to actually write about it.

janbb's avatar

As an example, for the time travel course I mentioned above, I am dipping into a book called The New Time Travelers: a Journey into the Frontiers of Physics. (Not that I can understand much of it.)

You can also use feelings from your own life (such as your emotions around your health issues) to get into the mind of someone with similar, but not the same, issues.

And for historical research, primary sources as well as memoirs and standard histories will help.

For mental illness issues, in addition to personal narratives, you would want to consult the DSM diagnostic manual as well as psychological journals and databases.

In other words, you’d want to find out what the standard research sources are for that field and look at a variety of them.

Reading lots of fiction and analyzing it will help you learn too.

zenvelo's avatar

Here is a little insight from today’s (January 24) Writer’s Almanac:

It’s the birthday of novelist Vicki Baum (books by this author), born in Vienna (1888). She’s best known for her novel Menschen im Hotel (1929, Grand Hotel), about a random group of people who stay in a fancy hotel in Berlin for a weekend. The characters include a stenographer, an aging ballet dancer, a dying man, and a thieving baron. The story goes that Vicki Baum got a six-week job as a chambermaid at a Berlin hotel in order to do research for her novel. Grand Hotel was adapted into a play in Germany and the United States, and made into a movie starring Greta Garbo, John Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, and Joan Crawford.

Vicki Baum said, “I felt and still feel that a writer should always have some profession which brings him into close contact with the realities of life.”

Kardamom's avatar

I’ve read a lot of Fannie Flagg books and books by another favorite author, Ann B. Ross, and both of them, in their acknowledgements have mentioned talking with and interviewing people and going to places that are part of the subject matter. Find people and places that will have the experiences you need for your story.

I remember one Q on here (maybe I can find it) when I first came on Fluther where a member was writing a story and part of it involved being on an abandoned construction site, so he/she asked the collective to give descriptives about what one would see, hear, smell etc. on that site. Maybe you could ask a similar Q if you already have some of the ideas you want to write about. Steal from us : )

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