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by lastknownwriter

Write what you know.

Isn't that what all the writing experts say? Well, what if what you want to write is a setting, profession, or life experience that you have no personal familiarity with? Can you authentically write about Rome, if you've never been to Italy? Does it really matter, if you're only writing fanfiction?

Yes, to all of the above.

I once wrote a novel about a family of serial killers. I am not a serial killer, nor are my parents or siblings. (Whew.) That fictional work was one of the toughest pieces I've ever written, and not just because of the subject matter or the plot twists necessary in a whodunit. I had to write from many headspaces, and one of those was the mind of a serial killer. What motivated him? What made him feel joy, pain, anger, love? What was his Achilles heel?

We aren't born with limitless knowledge, but we are born with the ability to learn, and to be a strong writer, you need to embrace the art of research. Now, before you groan, there's good news. This is research you will enjoy, because you have a vested interest in the outcome (if only schools could figure out how to harness this enthusiasm!).

For my serial killer novel, I could have run on down to the local maximum security prison and interviewed a few death row inmates, but the logistics of that were sketchy. So I took the next best route: I read. A lot. I read mass market detective paperbacks, true crime novels, websites devoted to missing persons, encyclopedias of serial killers, and capped all of that 'learning' by watching about a hundred Discover ID episodes. Sometimes I became so sickened by the horrors people perpetrate on other people, I would mainline Supernatural to escape to a happier place (and that's when you know you've possibly gone too deep).

I know what you're thinking... how does reading help? Well, as you become really enmeshed in a subject, you start to see nuances, the bits and pieces that make up the whole, and that, my friends, is what you can use in your writing to create authenticity. You won't convince readers by bashing them over the head; you convince them by dropping a trail of clues that will lead them to your intended conclusion. Let them 'see' without ever actually telling them what they're looking at. (There's a whole lecture we could insert here about active versus passive voice, but that's best saved for another chapter).

Writing today is an incredibly rich experience. You literally have the world at your fingertips. You can be standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, without ever getting off the couch, thanks to Google Earth. You can "walk" through that town you want to feature as your novel's setting and have a look around. What kinds of cars do people drive? What's the prominent style of architecture? What stores are located "downtown"? What roads lead into and out of town, what denomination of churches are in residence, where's the county seat? What are some street names? What does the next town look like? How far is it from the "city" (or if you're in a city, what's the next neighborhood)?

You can also glean a lot of information about a locale by utilizing city or state government websites: demographical data, median income, predominant industry. Think none of that matters? You can't have your character hopping on the subway after work if your setting is a rural community, or give your filthy rich executive a fleet of private jets...if he lives in a town geographically surrounded by corn fields, where he's more likely to find a quilting bee than a tuxedo.

Authenticity. Get it wrong and it can jar a reader out of the story so fast, they nope right on out.

Right now you might be feeling like this is an awful lot of work for fanfiction, and I won't argue with you. I researched smokejumpers for a solid two weeks before writing one fic, and in the finished piece there are maybe five lines related to the profession. Including that information felt very natural when it did happen, though, and it easily fell into the dialogue and exposition of the story. I think that shows when you read it. You believe that character when he speaks about smokejumping.

And, that's all you're really asking from a reader, to believe you, to believe in the story you're telling, to have faith that they are safe in your capable hands. Writing authentically does not have to mean you spent a year living abroad, infiltrated a cult, or went on tour with your favorite band as a roadie. It just means that you have taken the time to really understand your subject, all parts of it, even the little, boring, and obscure factoids that can lend a sense of realism to your writing.

It's my personal opinion that fanfiction is a genre of fiction as real and worthwhile as any other; why wouldn't you spend just as much time getting it right as you would a "real novel"?

Now, go! Grab some notecards and highlighters and your favorite pens and get cracking! I think there's a Google Earth pin out there with your name on it.

Now, go! Grab some notecards and highlighters and your favorite pens and get cracking! I think there's a Google Earth pin out there with your name on it

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What subject did you have to study for the sake of authenticity in fanfictions?

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