Sometimes, it is not enough to just use your imagination. There are too many details to consider and you don’t want to seem like you don’t know what you’re talking about. With that in mind, I have created a small list of ways you can prepare yourself before starting to write.
Let’s say you are writing about a spy like James Bond. Hypothetically, your protagonist visits a casino, orders a drink and starts to gamble. How can you accurately depict that? One of the ways is to visit the location in question, i.e. to visit a casino and soak in the atmosphere.
It doesn’t have to be a casino. If you want to have a bar as a setting, go to a bar. Are you writing about the intrigues within a church? Go to a few places of worships and see what you come up with. Of course, this method doesn’t always work if you want to write about fantasy.
Before writing about goblins, ghouls, and elves, you need to understand where the creatures come from. Different nations have different mythologies and mixing some of them together can result in an enjoyable blend. It will be your take on the lore, just don’t forget the ‘folk’ part of the equation. Whether its Irish leprechauns, Slavic vampires, or a Japanese long-nosed demon, you need to read up about them, before putting them into your book.
Folklore isn’t focused only on beings that don’t really exist. If you want to write about a nation, or you are using the people of that nation as a base for your own people, you need to check their customs, songs, and beliefs, as well as their mentality.
One of the things I find annoying when watching movies is when science fiction dispenses with science. For example, in the movie Pacific Rim, spoiler alert, there is a discharge of an EMP. All of the Jaegers, or giant robots, stopped working, as well they should – they are running on electricity, and the thing just blew out their systems. But, wait! One of the characters has a completely analog Jaeger, so it is unaffected by the EMP, despite the fact that we can see several digital devices inside the bot. Suspension of disbelief only takes you so far.
If you are writing about something that relies heavily on science, study on it and/or consult a professional. Anyone with a basic understanding of physics would show you why the plot twist I’ve just mentioned could never happen. The reason Agatha Christie could write about diseases and poisons in her novels so well was that she was a nurse – she already had the technical know-how to pull it off. Physics, math, chemistry, biology – these are not your enemies. Don’t treat them like voodoo.
One of the best pieces of advice I have ever received when it comes to doing research for a book is to read the works of other authors who have already tackled some of the problems you are facing. Don’t just copy their style, nor should you write about the same things.
If you are trying to come up with a fictional language, look at writers like J. R. R. Tolkien. In his books, he goes to great lengths to explain how some phrases evolved over the years, languages that have died, and the alphabets for them. You don’t need to go that far but you need to put in the work of understanding the mindset of writers and see them avoid clichés to make a good point. In fact, one of the reasons you need to read up on other writers is to be able to write about something that has not yet been done.