At some point back in high school, while I was writing a research paper on Jane Austen, I ran across the passage in one of her letters where she talks about working on her own “bit of ivory.” (Google it! J) Basically, she was explaining that she preferred to follow a well-known writing principle: write what you know. She wrote about things that happened mostly in her own social class and environment; neither high society nor low appear much in her novels.
While I hate to take a different position than Jane Austen, as a writer of fantasy and scifi I don’t recommend writing only what you know. (Other planets and winged horses aren’t part of my daily life.) Instead, I recommend caution when you are writing about something you don’t know much about, but which other people know very well. As a reader, I find nothing more jarring than running across a plainly incorrect detail in a story. (Example: A supposedly ordinary horse that casually jumps higher than the world record holder.) I also tend to notice the lack of detail that signals “the writer doesn’t know about this, and didn’t bother to research or experience it.”
What’s the solution? Do your research. Learn about anything and everything that has to do with your story. Even if the details that you learn don’t make it into your story (I am constantly having to cut details out of my writing), knowing them will help you to shape scenes with more confidence. Some weird little detail may even turn out to be a critical plot point!
What does this research look like? While you can start by researching your topic on the web, I don’t recommend stopping there. For any kind of academic topic (history, language, clothing of past eras, military strategy, etc.) the best, most detailed information probably isn’t going to be available online. If the topic you are working on is academic, there are two major avenues that you can pursue.
1. Find a library. I recommend going to the biggest college or university library in driving distance. Many universities will give you a library card if you live in the same state as the university (take your driver’s license with you). You can usually keep items for 6-9 weeks (with renewals). If the university will not give you a library card, they may still allow you to do research in the library. If you have a choice of several college libraries, go to the library at the college which has a department most closely matching your research topic. (For example, if you are researching Celtic mythology, and the university has a department in Celtic Languages and Literatures, that university’s library is guaranteed to have a good collection of items on that topic.)
Certain sections or shelves in the library will be rich with material on your topic. If you can’t find a listing for what you want in the library’s online catalog, ask a librarian to help you. Most professional librarians are very enthusiastic about their areas of specialization.
Once you find the shelves in the library that deal with your topic, start by looking for one or two general books on the subject. Then, look for primary sources—the original myths and legends (not retold versions), eyewitness accounts, autobiographies instead of biographies, books of travels by people who actually did the traveling. If you are writing about horse-training in the 1700s, see if you can find a book written in the 1700s on the topic, not just a modern book on the history of horse-training. Look for original objects—images of the saddles or horses or carriages etc. of the period in which you are interested. Find images of original objects in museum catalogs and archaeological reports.
But why should you bother with primary sources and original objects when textbook writers have condensed all this information for you already? Because they’ve condensed it. Textbook writers and writers of surveys have to make generalizations, and what you want for your story is detail. Details make a story come alive. Details convince a reader that your setting is real. There are wonderful wacky details in primary sources that you would never have made up on your own. (Look up “Sumerian omen lists” sometime.)
2. Find a professional. Check university and college websites until you find one with a department that fits your topic. Most department websites list contact information for faculty (and sometimes graduate students). Pick someone and send them an email. Most professors and students in the humanities are delighted to hear from anyone in the general population who is interested in their topic. They may be able to send you information and resources. At the very least, they can recommend some good books to try in the library.