Is Your Research Showing?

24 January 2013

Love this.  From Diane O’Connell – Is Your Research Showing?

“How do you know when to stop research? And how much research should actually go in your novel? Not knowing when to stop incorporating your research, or not knowing when the facts you’ve ferreted out of the library start to encroach on your story is a problem for many first time authors. As novelist Sean Pidgeon expressed in a recent New York Times article, “The true challenge, as I discovered in due course, was this: how to leave most of it out?”

Read the entire article here:  Write to Sell Your Book

Julia Barrett


Beautiful Writing, Books in General, The Business of Writing, Writing Advice

23 Comments to “Is Your Research Showing?”

  1. When your draft returns from the editor and says to you, “Your very detailed and accurate DETAILS are distracting, unnecessary, and overwhelming. Delete 50% of every paragraph and send it back.”

    That got my attention, many of your readers have no interest in all those researched details, as simple as that?

  2. After further thought, don’t comment too quickly, I had another perspective. I believe that most authors have a hidden agenda to their work. Their natural curiosity about what they undertake to describe to others prods them to fully understand what they might write about.

    Some of my effort is recounting memories from my lifetime. Other efforts are into areas where I was intrigued by some aspect, but felt the need to have a better understanding and to be more accurate in my writing.

    Having discovered things in our research we want to share those findings with the reader. Maybe not?

  3. “I want to see the forest, don’t show me every d-mn tree.” Thus spake the dissertation advisor. The point was that if I was going to sell the work to general readers, I needed to use the research to create the atmosphere rather than beating the reader over the head with data.

  4. Editor: “Maybe a little too much detail about the homemade silencer? Let’s make sure you’re not writing a how-to manual.”

    Me: “Uh…good point.”

    • That reminds me of when I beta’ed for another writer who was writing a scene on a drug user. She’d written every excruciating detail on how to prepare cocaine over an open flame in a spoon, etc, etc. My response was, “Are you writing a compelling scene about drug abuse or a how-to manual?”

      I never heard back from her.

      • Maybe you hit a little too close to home there HG? 🙂

        Being ex-military and an ex-flight medic I tend to know details about many odd things. You naturally want to expound on them in your writing and it can lead to the strange look and/or question.

        “How do you know this stuff?”

        “I went to a special school, the bus was short and green.”

        But staying on subject, I think the writer has to understand that just because they find the subject matter interesting enough for a large amount of detail, it doesn’t mean the reader will. Balance is the key, and having a good beta reader you trust.

  5. I write historical mysteries set in 11th century Japan. As a rule, a novel should only be burdened by what is necessary to the story, but modern readers rarely know anything about 11th c. Japan, as reader reviews on Amazon frequently prove. It means that the author must a) research fully everything, and then use only the minimum required to let the reader engage with the world depicted. The novel is not the place to show off your erudition.

  6. Otherwise known as Tom Clancy Disease.

    • +1, and this from someone who used to love Clancy.

      Actually *writing* techno-thrillers has taught me a lot. My first novel required a tremendous amount of research just to be certain I understood the concepts (orbital mechanics, hypersonic flight, effects of vacuum on the human body, etc).

      Then I had to build a fictional airline business model around it. Yeah, it helped that I had a lot of personal interest in such a concept.

      So once I finally got around to writing the book, it suffered from a severe bout of Clancy disease. The first draft ended up at close to 120,000 words; the final draft was under 90K and that included lots of new scenes.

      I eventually learned how to describe the tech by first deciding what was really important, then strategically inserting it in dribs and drabs. Make it part of the background instead of front and center, except for those times when it directly affects the story. That lends credibility without taking over. It ain’t perfect but it mostly works.

      Which all sounds painfully obvious, I reckon. The “how” is the hard part, and took several years of revisions to finally figure out what works.

      PS – Clancy started making my eyes glaze over with “Sum of All Fears”, which was a great story, but page after page of describing how a nuclear weapon works was just too #$%! much.

  7. Here’s what I think – and I do have an obsession with history and correct historical detail – give me the detail necessary for the story, and… AND… if you must include historical details, dear god make sure you are accurate.
    Right now I’m steaming about the inclusion of milk chocolate in an historical set in 14th Century Wales. Anybody grok my problem?

    • Yes. Pretty sure that chocolate was a Mayan thing, improved later by sugar. But as the ocean blue wasn’t crossed until 1492, the Welsh wouldn’t have had it in 13whatever.

      I’m using a historical period as a jumping off point for my WIP, and my rule is, what would a person in that time notice? If I don’t know how my car works, I’m not sure I need to go into painful detail about how their conveyances worked. Just enough to let the reader get the setting and atmosphere.

      • Moreover, the Mesoamericans only drank chocolate (or used cocoa mass as an ingredient in foods). Solid chocolate, served as a confection, was a 19th-century invention and requires some fairly sophisticated chemistry to prepare. Milk chocolate came later still.

        However, it’s quite obvious how a 14th-century Welshman could have got his hands on milk chocolate. Pick one:

        (1) He got it at the duty-free shop during a stopover in Antwerp on his Cook’s tour to Mazatlan;

        (2) There was this guy in a blue box, you see. . . .

    • “if you must include historical details, make sure you are accurate.”


  8. The current interesting fact is that there IS a place for your research – your website!

    Think about it: research is done to create a gestalt, to create the envelope. Most readers will need little more than that atmosphere, plus the contents of their own minds, to enjoy your novel.

    And then there’s the few, the ones who ARE interested in bell ringing (DL Sayers, The Nine Tailors) or Middle Earth (Tolkien).

    Tolkien collected all kinds of bits and pieces which ended up being published separately as The Silmarillion.

    But if you want your research to be available to those who care, if you have a website or a blog page for your book, you can put all that stuff there – for the reader. In whatever form you like: lists of references, bits of text and images, articles and related stories.

    If all you need is atmosphere, then, by actually having done the research (even if you don’t remember all the details), you can write the story without all the gory details.

    But if you’ve found valuable leads and information – for preservation’s sake, put it on your site – for the self-selected few who will find it fascinating.

    When I’m done with the WIP – which has a rather large research background – that’s where I’m going to put a lot of those bits and pieces I can’t bear parting with – but have no place slowing down the pace. Maybe someone will appreciate them.

    • I’ve been toying with that idea, too, especially because it seems like a great alternative to keeping the notes, diagrams, photos, and bibliographies for future stories. I would consider it a form of promotion, and it’s probably the only kind I would actually enjoy.

  9. I second Jamie’s comment that you use the perspective of someone who is native to the time. Wwjd – what woud jane (austen, obviously) do – is a pretty good rule to write by. So if you want to work your research details in, they have to be contextualized to the character. For example…i read a book where the heroine measured tea and the author actually included “one for the cup and one for the pot.” that lady? Would necer have bothered to think about that. So if you must flaunt the knowledge make her think about using three scoops for one cup bc she had the worst day ever, or only 1 (sad face) bc she cant afford more. Either of those the detail is somehing she would notice, although it might still be impossible to work in the standard measure vs implying she used more/less….

    But yeah. Nothing pulls me out of an historical era faster than anachronisms – even accurate ones.

  10. I don’t know. I’ve seen huge set pieces in stories that put research to good use as a characterization device. It may not sound very interesting to go into great detail about a character learning the intricacies of blacksmithing for several chapters or something like that, but I’ve read books where I thought it was done very well. But generally when it is used to illuminate a specific character and all the details are put across in a way that communicates characterization, not when they’re just dumped in as exposition.

    And I think there are more people than you think that find worldbuilding in fantasy to be one of its more interesting aspects. I’m reminded of all the fan forums and fan sites where people dedicated a huge amount of time to accumulating and organizing as much detailed information about the Wizarding World of Harry Potter as possible and all the letters and questions that Rowling received begging for more information. Middle-earth is of course another example. There are actually quite a lot of people who are interested in all that background information, otherwise publishing the History of Middle-earth books wouldn’t have been economically viable.

    Appendices, famously put to use in books like The Lord of the Rings and Dune, are always a good option if you don’t want to risk alienating any readers.

    • You have a good point. I generally prefer to concentrate on the details that would be fascinating to the reader. My WIP is a science fantasy based on a historical time period, but the descriptions I spend the most time on are ones that would be fascinating to readers, especially if it involves my own spin on technology that would have existed at that time, or a mythical creature not often used in stories, especially not the way I characterize it. I tend to walk a line to appeal on two levels, one for those in the know (and therefore I have to work a little harder to show I’m not getting it wrong I’m getting it different, and the second level for those not in the know. My approach right now is to use a POV character who has “incomplete/inaccurate” information, and showing more than telling certain things so the reader can draw their own conclusions. I hope it works; the work itself is experimental since I’m breaking a few tropes in the first place. I’m not sure this story would ever see the light of day were it not for the indie revolution.

  11. Like everything else in a good story, I think balance is the key. Some readers love the details, others don’t, but if the story is handled well and the details can blend seamlessly then I think either can work. Though it takes a deft hand. My current scifi book out had a lot of research on speculative and theoretical science. I had to figure out a way to work it in for the reader while making it believable, yet not too thick or too thin. My best friend was my first draft reader and while she’s very smart she’s not ‘science smart’, so she was invaluable to me on that perspective. She gave me numerous suggestions on how to get the science explanations across without going over her head and keeping them believable between the characters.

    It’s a fine line to walk. That’s where editors and beta readers can really help us.

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