Use What You Know
When writing your bestselling novel, it is always best to choose a subject with which you are familiar. There is nothing more disheartening than reading a story set in a foreign country by someone who doesn’t know the language, the customs or even the local. Instead of say, Beijing, it reads more like Chinatown in LA. Even an issue of National Geographic can give you a few basic ideas on foreign countries and customs.
Use what you do. I am a chef and a musician. While neither figures prominently in my writings, I tend to use both for settings and for mood. Conversations over a meal or a glass of wine while listening to music can be the ideal device to elicit responses from your characters and set differences between them. Do they prefer a spicy dish or bland? Wine or beer? Jazz or show tunes?
Use you passions. History is one of my passions, so historical accuracy is very important to me when I read for relaxation. Nothing ruins a good story for me like a blaring mistake in a date or historical event. A casual reader might pass over it but to me it’s a stop sign. There are websites devoted to historical accuracy in dress, language and customs. Even fiction set in an alternate time needs some kind of factual starting point, perhaps even more so. Love to bike? Use it as a theme or way to learn about your character. Love cats? Write detective stories with cats. My wife loves them.
Use your locale. Another passion of mine is location. I live in Arizona, a state of many dramatically different elevations and climates. Saguaro cactus, that massive centuries old, may-armed giant, grows only in certain locals in the Mojave Desert of Southern Arizona, Northern Mexico and around Phoenix. Reading a story with Saguaro in Wyoming makes me cringe. Seeing it in movies does too. I can place westerns’ filming locations by the pants and the mountains. Do a little research. Cottonwoods need water. Joshua Trees don’t. Cypress grows in swamps. Firs grow at higher altitudes. Mary Beth’s favorite Magnolia tree from her home in Georgia isn’t going to do well in her new home in Yuma, Arizona. It doesn’t take a great deal of effort to strive for accuracy in flora and fauna and can convey professionalism to an editor.
When I use a city I’m not familiar with as a location – New York or Cairo – I use National Geographic, Yahoo Maps, order tourist information from the city involved and search on-line for tidbits of information. It can help build a factual base but it won’t help much with local dialect, local traffic patterns, etc. Dig deep. Sometimes the tidbits become germs for ideas for your story, affecting plotline and character.
Use what you know, love or want to learn. If you wish to portray an autistic teen, such as I am in a novel in progress, read up on autism. Go to a school where they teach autistic children. Be accurate. 1 out of 110 children are diagnosed with autism. Seems very high to me, but there are degrees of autism. The way I pay attention, my wife thinks I’m autistic sometimes. Personal tragedies or triumphs make good novels if handled properly. Love astrophysics but can’t add 2 plus 2? Read up on it. Others have done the math for you.
Writing is pouring your soul onto a page. Writing well is adding the spice that turns it into a bestselling novel. Write well.