There are plenty of books on creative writing that say “write what you know.” But let’s face it, for the most of us, things that are interesting enough to be made into a book are outside our realm of experiences.
Unless you’ve live a roller coaster of a life and decided to publish your memoirs, you are probably inventing a lot of what you are writing yourself. At the best case, you are embellishing events that really happened to you and abstracting their significance to make them a more universally understandable experience.
You want to give your readers a thrill, some action, a little romance, you want to captivate them. So you create a narrative about another world, another life, but readers are a demanding lot, so they need something to ground the action, and that is authenticity.
You need the right lingo, take Tom Clancy for example, he dumps piles of military and espionage jargon on his readers, and that is how they know he knows what he’s talking about. You need to show an understanding about the environment you are transporting the reader to. Take George R. R. Martin as an example for this one. His A Song of Ice and Fire series functions like medieval Europe, near and far east, and by doing so transports the reader to Westeros in earnest.
It all comes down to research. Tom Clancy took the time to learn about politics, the military and as much as was possible about the world of espionage. George R. R. Martin studied medieval cultures, especially European, history, politics, and even their technology, as well as the use of language (though he uses modern English, his formulations are very much at home for medieval English, which sounded a lot like French).
With my first book, I did my research too, but that was rather easy as narratives about the drug world have become very popular (Breaking Bad, Weeds, Narcos, The Wire, etc.) so people are mostly familiar with the topic and the world portrayed is our contemporary world. In my current project this is not the case.
I am now writing a first world war novel taking place between December 1914 and April 1915 (Battle of Ypres), and things worked very different. I will give you a few points of what I am doing and why, and you can adapt them to your writing projects:
- Know your facts! I bought books, went to the library, and scoured the internet to find out everything possible about the Battle of Ypres. Which units served on all sides, who commanded them, where they were stationed exactly, and, of course, the sequence of events. This also encompasses things in the larger context: the political reality of the time, common technology, the laws of the time, things like that.
- Know your lingo! Language is very important, but as a writer, you already knew that. Find out how people talked at the time. Slang is a very good way of creating a sense of authenticity. You can read memoirs and letters, diaries from the time, and even consult resources like the OED (Oxford English Dictionary) that also give an account of a word’s usage in different periods.
- Know the people! This is an extension of the last point, but slightly more tricky. As I am writing a historical novel, I am using what I learned in college in my classes as a minor in history, but I am also reading history books about British, and German, culture at the time. Reading memoirs and letters helps as well, but such an analysis may take you years, so reading what professional historians and sociologists write about those periods makes more sense.
I hope these points help you somewhat. Let me know if there’s something you think I forgot, or if you need clarification