What You Know
Most have heard this advice about writing: Write what you know.
For new writers, especially younger ones, this is a confusing bit of advice. You want to write a mystery novel involving a murder set in Rome. Your mind is full of the plugs you’ll have: “International intrigue!” “Globe-trotting Sleuth!” But, then you heard someone say you should write what you know. CRASH! BURN! You’ve never been to Rome. You’ve never committed a murder. You have no experience in crime detection and investigation. Huh?
Here’s the truth. “Write what you know,” is a blow-off line. Incomplete. Inaccurate. It’s the advice you get from someone who just wants to cut you off at the knees. Why? Because you know a lot more than you think. Or–well–you will know a lot more. Follow me on this.
Okay, you haven’t been to Rome. Big deal. Maps, Google, your browser, the library, bookstores, and other resources can get you all the information you need to create a setting sketch and write believable scenes set in Rome. Some writers use those travel guides they find in bookstores that provide details on restaurants, sights, events, and customs of a place like Rome or other cities.
The US State Department has information online for potential travelers for almost every destination on the planet. Here’s the link to information on the Holy See (Vatican City) in Rome. It also provides access to the CIA World Factbook for further information on the Holy See. If you want in-depth information, the State Department and the CIA are great resources. They are free. I don’t know if you can get access outside the US.
I used Google Maps and Street View as I worked through settings in Sudden Mission. I’d track where my characters would be on Google Maps, then drop down to Street View to see what they would see as they went down a specific street or highway. Near St. Louis, MO, is a town named Edwardsville, IL. I know nothing about this town. I studied the maps carefully, looking for a route around St. Louis and across the Mississippi River. Edwardsville was a good find. I had my characters going up a residential street there just as I dumped a plague of frogs on them.
This image on the right is that street in Edwardsville, IL. This kind of tool makes it possible to describe a place accurately and realistically. I just added frogs. I used the scene to describe what happened in the novel and it added realism and authenticity. You’d never know I’ve never been to Edwardsville. Ever.
I wrote Sudden Mission in 2012, so I had to use Google Maps with Adobe Flash (Bad JuJu) installed on my system. When I didn’t need it any more, I took Flash off. Fortunately, Flash is no longer required. Most browsers support the protocols to render Street View correctly.
Setting Sketch and Research Section
The setting sketch provided in Scrivener’s templates can contain a lot of details you gather from the above resources.
In the research section of your project binder, you can add folders and documents, then cut and paste entire web pages or just links and references. This is handy. You can refer back to the items in your research section to verify details or facts. Keep links related to your work in progress from the US State Department and CIA World Factbook in folders here. Don’t be afraid to use the Factbook. It’s paid for by the US taxpayer and published for your benefit. As for Google Maps, take screen shots of your key places and save them in your research section.
Now, as for the murder. Do some research on crime scene investigation (not by watching TV). You want to avoid the CSI Effect. Research the law, police procedures, crime scene and evidence collection, evidentiary processes, custody of evidence, and anything else relevant. Since you set your crime in Rome, you’ll also want to check out law enforcement cooperation and investigation across international boundaries. Much of this information is found online with some searching. Here’s a Wikipedia link to get you started.
When you find something, dump the link, page, information into a document in your research section.
The key to remember is that nothing is ever as simple or straightforward as it might at first seem.
Oh fun, you say.