Writing about topics I don't know too well...

by John Alexis
(Kissimmee, Florida)

Hi! I'm John (big fan of your page!), and I have a question that has been haunting me for a while and will not let me begin ANY book I try to write. So, I'm currently working on several stories at once. The reason for this is that some are too elaborate and require research and such. But those that I really want to write, have me stuck because either the main character or the story itself revolves around topics I am unfamiliar with it.

For example, I have two or three books in which the main character is a police officer or a detective. I know nothing about law enforcement or their protocols (or anything of the law, for that matter), and I have no family members or friends in that field. Also, I don't even know anybody in that field either. I also have characters that are mayors, military personnel and even doctors.

Other examples (or problems) are not actually careers. In my stories, I also have hospitals, schools, government, mental institutions, circuses, and even characters from other countries (which I'm trying very hard not to make them stereotypical or offensive to people from those countries).

What do you recommend for cases like these? Should I take the time to read books (fiction and non-fiction) about those topics? Should I interview people in those fields or go to hospitals and mental hospitals to study how they work? What about the characters from other countries
I've never been to? And the procedures of law or hospitals?

I want to make my stories as accurate as possible and avoid mistakes that will make my characters and my stories stereotypical.

Do you recommend making my own "version" of these topics? Do you think I have that flexibility when it comes to writing fiction?

Thank you for taking the time to read! I'd appreciate the help!

Answer: Certainly the best research approach would be to spend time with people in those professions, so you can discover a lot of authentic, up-to-date details not available any other way.

Baring that, there are reference books on topics like law enforcement written for crime writers (I believe Writer's Digest magazine publishes some). Or you might try reading accounts of true crime or textbooks on law enforcement. Perhaps audit a course on criminology?

As for writing about other countries, the best research is to visit those places and get to know people from there, but that's often not practical for most.

You can learn a certain amount from travel books, google maps, and local newspapers. In general you want to know too much rather than not enough.

You may want to become friends with the reference librarian at your local library, because they can often help you track down information faster.

I hope you find research fun (many people do), because one of the perks of writing is getting to learn about a lot of different topics.

Best of luck.

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