For those of you who follow me on Twitter or are friends with me on Facebook, know that I've spent the last couple of days serving on a jury. It was a criminal case, a drug dealer on Chicago's west side, and although it was extremely disruptive to take off work for so long, I did find the whole experience rather intriguing. I learned a lot about how our legal system works (or sometimes doesn't work), procedures cops must follow when apprehending a suspect, and really how hard it is to convict someone of a crime. All of this information, all of the details I experienced during my two days, could be used in a novel.
Though most of our research is done via the internet, nothing compares to the authority of personal experience. I can go on Google Earth and look at an aerial photo of a neighborhood, but it's not the same as growing up on that block. I truly believe the best research is active research, where you are experiencing something first hand rather than reading an account of it on your computer.
So, should all crime writers stand on the most violent corner to witness crime first hand? Should romance writers attempt to get involved with an unattainable man and overcome obstacles where love triumphs in the end? Of course not. We write fiction because it's more interesting than anything we've experienced. But there are small things we can do to research and bring more authenticity to our novels.
Talk to People. Say you're writing a police procedural or some novel involving a cop. Do not write a single word of dialogue before talking to a couple police officers. Cops have a different way of speaking, a specific way of saying things, and it's necessary to capture that on the page. Is one of your characters a lawyer? An ER nurse? Talking with people in these professions will give you insight into their daily lives, which you will bring into your book.
Explore the City. Most of us are perfectly content to stay in our house for days on end writing and not seeing the light of day. But if you're writing about people and places, you need to get out and experience them. I find driving or biking through different neighborhoods gets the creative juices flowing. If you know what certain neighborhoods look like first hand, your knowledge will shine through in your writing. You don't have to visit every location in your book, that takes too long. But if you're writing about a neighborhood you've never been to before, it's probably worth a trip.
Try Something New. Do you know what it feels like to hold a gun? To dig a ditch? To ride in a helicopter? Trying a few of these things can also help bring authenticity to your book. Again, you don't have to experience everything you write about, that's why they call it fiction. But if you have one or two new experiences a year, you'll eventually build a large stash of knowledge. Visit a shooting range (or in some states, Wal-Mart) and ask to hold a gun. Go on a helicopter ride. Even something as small as swimming in the ocean can serve as important research.
With all of these suggestions, comes a warning: Research is fun, sometimes more fun than writing. Don't get so caught up in the research that you use it as a way to push the writing aside. Remember your goal is to write a novel, a good novel, and while research is necessary, it does not take the place of writing.