About ten years ago, I created a series of teen books called ON THE ROAD. It was about a recent high school graduate named Miranda who takes a year off before college to travel across the country. I had envisioned a fifty book series with Miranda visiting every state in the union. I loved the premise and quickly found a publisher who loved it, too. The only problem—which I kept to myself—was that at the time I had never traveled west of the eastern seaboard.
Information wasn’t as widely available on the Internet as it is now, so I set about doing my research the old-fashioned way. I read many travel guides and clipped newspaper articles about popular destinations; I requested info from the chamber of commerce of several cities; I talked to as many people as I could about the places where they grew up.
Even still, the task felt overwhelming. There was too much room for error. What if my details were wrong? How could I possibly capture the feeling of a place without ever being there?
For a while, these two questions paralyzed me—until I reminded myself that I wasn’t writing a travel guide, I was writing fiction. Yes, I wanted to do justice to the places Miranda visited, but the real point of the story was her own self-discovery. It was more important to stay true to Miranda’s inner journey than to worry about documenting every nuance of the landscape. It was then that I learned the magic of the well-placed detail. If you confidently scatter a handful of researched details within your fiction, the reader will often believe that you are an authority on the particular subject.
For example, at one point in the series, I had Miranda travel to
Or what if you’re writing about an industry you’re unfamiliar with? Don’t feel like you have to pull a Tom Clancy and know it inside and out (although there’s nothing wrong with that) before you can write about it. Research two or three aspects of the industry really well, place them strategically in the story and move on. You don’t have to inundate the reader with detail to be convincing. Just a sprinkling here and there will suffice.
I’ll admit that writing about what you don’t know does, at times, feel a bit fraudulent. Here’s why it’s not: the purpose of fiction is often to reveal universal truths, which often requires a writer to stretch beyond his realm of experience. Secondly, a reader brings her own experiences to the work. Give the reader a few good details to hang her hat on, and her imagination will do the rest.
When I turned in my final manuscript for ON THE ROAD, I remember being a bit nervous because I had sent Miranda to
“I lived there for ten years, you know,” she said.
Oh, great, I thought. Busted.
"You nailed it.”
I had to laugh. I really didn’t do much at all—it was her experience of