In some cases this is obvious and expected. The first book I wrote was set partly in Africa. I've never been to Africa. Chances are my readers have (mostly) never been to Africa. But my description of Africa still had to be realistic. It had to look like Africa. The people had to be African - and that includes a huge variety of people. The people had to eat the right food, practice the right religion, wear the right clothes. Even if the reader doesn't know what right is, they can figure out wrong. So I went to Google. I read articles, found websites in the appropriate country, looked at picture of the clothes and architecture. I studied history, politics, conversion rates and future forecasts. I Wiki'ed my little heart out (Google often leads me to Wikipedia). And I did it all from my desk in my bedroom. I suppose I could have gone to a library, but I'm confident it would take far longer and be less productive. I could have gone to Africa, but I'm sure it would take far longer and cost more money. So I used Google.
Now, I'm sure I'm not doing Africa justice. I'm sure I'm missing something. But it's okay. My book isn't about Africa. Stuff just happens there. My Africa doesn't need to be real, it just needs to be realistic. And it is because it's based on truth, even if it isn't wholly accurate. It has 'truthiness'.
Steven was in the World Medical Co-operative’s office in N’Djamenah. The building that housed it was a tan colored colonial affair, the kind found throughout the heart of the city. Such structures were built in the fifties in an attempt to make the capital feel more a part of the French empire. But now the crumbling arches and stonework served as a reminder of the country’s current disconnection from the West. The office itself was on the second floor – it was rare for any building other than a hotel to have more than two stories – and it had a small balcony that overlooked the street. It was on one of the main paved roads in the capital, with the whir of taxis and motorbikes coming in through the open window. In the late afternoon the sound of children flooding into the streets added to the din. It was a hot day, hot even for Chad.
This also goes for locations that you completely make up. Completely imagined worlds also need to have a truthiness to them. If it's a world of swords and magic it should still have building materials that are appropriate to the technology level. If it's in the future, the laws of physics still need to hold (or new ones need to be explained). Any planet that orbits a sun will have seasons. Any planet with an atmosphere will have colors. Any person in a cold environment will need clothes of some style to keep themselves warm. If you make things up without reference you will lose the kernel of truth that allows you're reader to believe in what you have created.
But there are other cases where Google has proven invaluable that were more of a surprise to me. Because even characters need to have truthiness. I know, as writers we all like to think that we understand the human psyche. That we can just create people and they will be whole and complete. But we can't. No one has that wide an experience base. While I know a lot about my characters based on my own life, I need to know more. What's it like to be abused as a child? What does it feel like to get shot in the shoulder? Is passing a kidney stone really as painful as giving birth? Luckily, I don't know any of those things. But my character might. So instead of playing with dangerous objects, I turn to Google. It's amazing how quickly you can find a blog or story or study that will give you some insight. Not the whole it of, but enough to combine with your personal knowledge to make a realistic person on the paper.
When I started writing it was all about the imagination. And that ability to create is awesome. But the ability to learn, to create something that has meaning and that others can believe in - that's even better. So for those writers who had to do that in the dark ages (anything before 1990), I salute you. For me, I say Thank God For Google.