DO THE WORK: RESEARCH!
In my humble opinion, it is the WORST IDEA EVER to make up something, especially for science fiction or fantasy and not put work into researching your subject.
I have a character that became a vampire in 6th century Britain. As I was working on his backstory a spontaneous cemetery scene popped into my head. I wrote it and then re-read it and something felt off.
Specifically, the setting. I got the clothes and the political climate right–because I researched them–but I had no idea what a 6th century Cornwall/Devon-ish cemetery looked like. I knew nothing about the burial customs of Anglo-Saxon England.
I do now.
Because I researched it. Cremation was a thing. Pretty cool stuff. Here’s a link. And then I had to go a step further and research battlefield burial practices in Anglo-Saxon England. Here’s another link.
Now you might be thinking: but if I’m writing science fiction or fantasy isn’t everything already made up? Why does it matter?
Because if your details, timelines, or invented technologies don’t add up your writing isn’t going to be strong and you might face a lot of criticism once you put your book out into the world.
As I was summarizing the plot of a science fiction novel A writer acquaintance of mine once commented, “Laser fire won’t work, you can’t have lasers as weapons in space. Light doesn’t hurt things in space.”
And while I told her the word “laser” was just a place holder for the IDEA OF THE THING until I figured out what would work as a super spacey technologically advanced weapon system that NO ONE ELSE HAS DONE YET (haha yeah right), I really appreciate her comment because even though it means more work for me, it also means that when I get the work done and figure out what would work instead of a generic and inaccurate trope.
I’m still researching and working on that one, by the way.
Helpful Hint #1:
I will often use Wikipedia as a starting place for narrowing the specificity of my research but I DO NOT take everything on there as fact. Anyone can add things to a Wikipedia page, it might not all be true.
I like to use newspapers and academic sites (.edu) for sources because they usually have to fact check, have additional source material, and have to adhere to some standard of quality and credibility.
Academic and research papers from sites like JSTOR are good as well.
Helpful Hint #2:
When you’ve finally found your source you want to make sure the information is presented in an objective manner. If you found a nifty academic paper with a thesis statement, that’s cool, but you don’t want to waste your time reading someone’s 20 page treatise on their OPINION of the subject when you want facts.
Objectivity is key. Look for facts, not opinions.
Helpful Hint #3:
This may seem like a time waster but you’ll be better off in the long run. VERIFY YOUR INFORMATION by finding multiple sources that say the same thing. If more than one person repeats the same fact/date/whatever, it’s more likely to be true.
My teachers in college always told me to do this and me, being a terrible student, was all like, “I am not wasting my time like that!” And then I got an F on the paper because I’d used fraudulent sources. Because I didn’t check to see if my source material was actually right. I was so embarrassed. Don’t let that kind of thing happen to you.
So to sum up:
1. Research your subjects
2. Use credible sources
3. Get concrete facts
4. Check those facts across multiple sources
Fact checking is so important, not just in research for your work in progress, but in how you conduct yourself as a creative person, especially on social media. Make sure you have all your information before you post that tweet or that blog post.
Follow up question:
How does researching treat you? Do you love spending hours jumping down knowledge rabbit holes or is it a necessary evil?