Write what you know.—I have stumbled across this aphorism more times than I care to recount in writing advice articles. There is truth in it, but there is also a lie. The lie discourages writers from going outside of their comfort zone—a woman will never be able to write from the viewpoint of a man without the same authenticity that testicles bring. A straight person can never write from the viewpoint of any other sexual orientation. Same goes with ethnicity. Don’t have your character grow up in the south if you grew up in Boston. Don’t put them in conflicts you haven’t experienced yourself. Don’t. Don’t Don’t. If that advice was sound, our libraries of solid literature would be very small and uninteresting—autobiographies and nonfiction with minor name changes.
Storytelling is about recognizing the negative and positive aspects that being human entails—revealing the byproduct of love, birth, death, reproduction in a compelling way. Where your character lives, what their biological gender is, the language they speak, how they make money—none of those things are as important as what your character comes to understand about themselves, others, and life itself.
But there is also truth in writing what you know. If your character is in the Korean War and you don’t even know what continent that was fought on, that’s a problem. If your main character gets raped in one scene and is over it in the next scene, that’s a problem. If your character is Jewish and you describe them as having a doily on their head and curliques hanging down either side and call it a day—that’s going to be a problem. Unfortunately, all these are examples of stories I have encountered in the slush pile.
Inadequate research creates inadequate characters, whose experiences are anemic and unremarkable. They offer the reader no insight into the human condition, they only entertain the mind for a moment and then fade away like an eighties situational comedy.
The further removed you are from your subject matter, the more research will be required to create an authentic reading experience. If your main character’s parents are Amish and it greatly affects their life, and all you can conjure up are buggies and hats for details, then you will need to start researching the Amish until you could talk about them like you were one yourself in a former life.
If your character leaves a cult, don’t just research the cult, research individuals inside the cult. Find interviews, videos, pictures, stories. Get first hand accounts. Research what conflicts played out between members, what family members outside the cult thought of the cult, what the townspeople nearby thought. You will walk away with a treasure trove of possibilities. Your story will take on new twists and turns entirely on its own. The hours spent researching will be well worth it, when your hands fly over the keyboard with the sure strokes of somebody who knows what the hell they are talking about.
Readers will not trust a voice that is not authentic. They will not care about your characters. They will not invest time in finding out their outcomes. So take the time to do the research. Invest time in your characters. Investigate their backgrounds, think about what led them to be the character they are on the first page when your reader first meets them. Don’t create a sketch of a human being, create a human being so vivid they jump right off the page and into your reader’s head.