I recently reached a point in my novel where I wanted the main character to take part in a shallow marine survey. Having never done this myself, I was moving away from the standard advice to ‘write what you know’ and venturing into territory that I didn’t know at all. Daring to do this is easier than ever before now we have the internet at our fingertips. There’s so much information out there on almost any subject you might be interested in that you could spend weeks doing research before you wrote a single word. The difficulty probably isn’t finding what you’re looking for, but writing about it so convincingly that it isn’t glaringly obvious you needed to look for it in the first place.
Some authors end up putting too much research into their book, leaving readers to wade through pages of unnecessary and potentially tedious detail that adds nothing to the plot. Others don’t put in enough, leading to an absence of authenticity. The skill lies in getting the balance between the two just right.
I think Helen Dunmore achieved this in her book The Lie. Set two years after the end of the First World War, the main protagonist is trying to adjust to life back in England after the horrors he faced in the trenches. Dunmore lets us see through his eyes not with laboriously detailed descriptions, but small observations of life in those times that surely came from substantial research, but which land with a light and seemingly effortless touch on the page.
It’s a lot easier to write about a subject you know than one you don’t, and departing from this safer path myself has given me even more respect for authors who manage to pull it off.