As a writer, I feel the need to really know my characters, their situations, their props and settings.
For The Edge of Darkness, that wasn’t so hard. It was largely a made-up world, set in deep space on a spaceship and the weapons used were also made up.
I did some research on amputees and prosthetics to try to get a feel for what Max might be feeling as a cyborg with a robotic arm. I researched what kind of food could theoretically be grown on a spaceship. I researched some other science-y things. But when I wrote the story, I probably knew a lot more than I was putting in to the book.
With Winter Witch, one of my characters wears a monocle. I had no idea how monocles stayed put, so I did some research to better understand my character. I found out how someone inserts and wears a monocle, and I felt like I had a strong grasp on the eyepiece and I wrote it into the book.
When I mentioned the research to friends, another author piped up that she was interested in how people wore monocles. I was surprised, because I was sure I’d read one of her characters in one of her books I’d read actually did wear a monocle. I was surprised because this author didn’t know how her character wore a monocle and she clearly hadn’t done the research into finding it out. Maybe she didn’t care. Maybe it wasn’t important. The character wore a monocle and that’s all we needed to know.
Write what you know.
“Write what you know” is probably one of the most repeated pieces of writing advice out there. And it’s true, you should write about what you know. But you can always expand upon what you know by research.
As for me? I didn’t feel comfortable writing about a character who wore a monocle until I knew exactly how a monocle worked. I think it’s an issue with my perfectionism that I needed to research something so foreign to me. But I didn’t want to make some basic mistake that a monocle-wearing fan might point out in the book.
My character doesn’t even take his monocle off or put it back on, so I’m not quite sure why it was so important to me to know these things. Maybe for future reference? I’m sure I only mention the monocle in passing.
The research I did certainly wasn’t earth-shattering, but as a writer I felt like I needed to know more than I was putting on the page.
I think that’s why we’re told to write what we know.