Knowing What You Don’t Know

We live in an age of wonders, as far as research on fiction goes.  Not so long ago, an aspiring author had to go to a library, or take a course or something, to research some topic important to their book (hence the classic advice to ‘write what you know’, which might be more accurately stated as ‘write what you already know’).  But of course, those of us engaged in speculative fiction can only take that so far, and anyway there generally comes a time when you need to go a bit beyond the realm of personal experience (especially if your life is not a non-stop thrill-ride but you want to give your readers something a bit exciting to read about).

So research.  Made so much easier by the internet.  All you need to do these days is just type whatever you want to know about into a search engine (which let’s face it is likely Google, but if you are an Alta Vista fan don’t let me stop you). I’ve recently had some reminders, though, of the secondary functions of beta readers and editors.  Their primary function, of course, is to unsuckify your writing (sorry if that isn’t a word – this hasn’t been edited).  But secondarily, they may have had some direct experience with something your characters have done.  Because it is all fine and well to read about things, but it doesn’t measure up to personal experience with corsets and half-moon clips and so on, simply because basic information about something may miss those little details that really make something come to life.  Oh, you can perhaps find that if you look hard enough on the Internet, but you risk the grim reality of diminishing returns when you start to search for those finer points:

XKCDsecondEven more importantly, though, is that without personal experience, you likely don’t know what sort of questions to ask the all-knowing Internet.  So short of just getting out and living life (bleah, right?), I think the best bet is getting to know some interesting people who are willing to read your stuff.

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