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Writing from within a bubble - Research vs. Experience

Updated: Feb 16, 2021

Have you ever read something so ludicrously inaccurate that you've had to shelf the offending article and never wanted to look back at it?

Whether it be factually inaccurate or just not authentic enough, I have found myself in this situation a fair few times.

When I talk about factual accuracy, I do not mean that the author has given the wrong date for a certain historical event - obviously proof-readers have jobs for this very reason - but I'm talking about when a writer has deliberately fictionalised something to such an extent that it just seems ridiculous. Luckily, I don't find this in published works. However, when scoping for inspiration on online platforms, I have found manuscripts that have been so inconsistent with their balance of fiction and nonfiction, that my attention has diverted from the actual plot/concept.

Admittedly, I am VERY guilty of this. When rereading some of my earlier work, it is evident that I couldn't quite grasp the knack of effective and believable worldbuilding. I would use a low immersion world and without giving reason, would try to make minute changes. The same with other aspiring writers - we try to build a slightly altered copy of our own reality in order to shape our story.

This isn't a completely bad idea. I mean, the majority of the fiction we read and the TV we watch stems from the particulars of our own reality, but sometimes we need authenticity to ground us in the story. We need to be able to relate to the world to establish a link with the characters. I guess this is why worldbuilding is so important - especially when it comes to writing in genres such as fantasy, dystopia and science fiction.

So what exactly do we need to know before we start writing? Is it necessary to get down as much information as possible? Do we need to let the reader know somehow whether we are situating them in their own world or an altered one? And to what extent do we need to base the story on research or our own life experiences?

That last question is one that particularly ails me. One thing that I really find I struggle with is writing accurately and authentically. When I write about something I have never experienced before, I feel false and that I am writing in poor taste. This occurs whenever I try to write about a place other than my hometown, when I write from a character's POV completely different to my own, or when I try to capture the essence of an event I have never attended - you name it. But then I force myself to remember that J.K. Rowling was never an 11 year old wizard, and Markus Zusak had no idea how Death perceived his career. You just have to find the steady balance between creativity and research.

But how are we meant to utilise experiences when we are living in this era of isolation? As far as research goes, we are able to access whatever information we want with the internet. However, when it comes to writing emotion, realistic dialogue, description - where do we go? Does research have to be solely conducted by yourself or can we borrow from others?

I have found that, depending on the genre you are writing in, you are given a variety of options. For example, if I were to write a contemporary drama, I'd have to engage with the subjects of the story. I would perhaps have to read a biography or two about how a certain issue affects said people's lives. If I were to write science fiction, though, I'd probably have to research the novum of the story and how other writer's have tackled the worldbuilding behind it. Be it a crime novel I wish to write, I'd definitely have to work on my law knowledge and perhaps watch a few real-crime documentaries. You get the idea. The point I'm getting at is, if you are unable to experience something for yourself, then listen to what others have to say about theirs. Use what you can find, do the research then add a dash of your own creativity.

So, in this rather adventure-starved era we are currently living in - where do you draw inspiration from? Do you bury yourself in books or take advantage of shared experiences?

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