The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Research
Can novelists know too much about their subject, as well as too little?
Last week I shared the three stages of research that I go through as I write my novels.
- Stage one: Broad research to determine whether an idea is workable.
- Stage two: Collection of facts needed to anchor my story in reality.
- Stage three: The search for specific details.
Remember the story we were “plotting?” The owner of a skydiving school. The death of a client. The guilt. The questions. The struggle for answers. You’ll find a more detailed version here.
Last week was a “how-to.” This week is a “how-not-to.”
Most novelists enjoy research. Those who don’t enjoy it write about things they know intimately–or things that don’t exist. Of course there are still problems with not researching both.
First novels may be strongly autobiographical, but how many times can we use the same setting, the same characters, the same problems? Eventually we run out of facts we know and understand, and we have to look outside our own lives.
So given that research is essential, what could be the problem with it?
Here’s what my friend Casey Daniels said in an email that spurred this blog. She’d told me in a previous email that she’d gotten stuck in her research for a novel set in the 1930s. She needed info on domestic technology of that era. So I foolishly made suggestions. Here’s her response:
…1930s appliances . . . the problem wasn’t finding no info, the problem was finding lots of info. And of course, getting sucked in the black hole of research. Oh, a 1935 stove. Look at that! I wonder what colors it came in! And how much did it cost! Where would they have bought it? What appliance stores were in Cleveland then?
You see the problem, right? Research is fascinating.
After all, we chose the subject because something about it appealed to us. It’s so easy to tell ourselves we need to know everything, when in reality we might only need enough information to:
- Be sure we understand basics and aren’t going out on a limb.
- Write one complete sentence and move on.
Yes, that last is true. As a research addict I will spend hours to write that one accurate sentence. Do I need to? Absolutely not! It’s sheer fascination that leads me from website to website researching (as I did recently) the color selection of VW bugs from the 1970s. (Some people would swap “mania” for “fascination.”)
Do my readers care what the various colors of vintage VW bugs were called? No, because, let’s face it, most readers wouldn’t recognize them. Would they care if I wrote about VW bugs produced in a year when they weren’t? Possibly. A few might notice and a small percentage would write and complain. Would they care if I said VW bugs reached top speeds of 180 mph on the highway, had special dispensation from law enforcement to do so at will, and throughout history had never been involved in a crash? Of course.
As novelists we have to know the difference.
For those of us who want to know everything about subjects that interest us, the research trail is dotted with potholes.
- The desire to be thorough.
- The desire to become an expert.
- The desire to show off.
Showing off is the most dangerous. How many times have you read a novel with pages of information that doesn’t interest you and worse, doesn’t matter to the story? Hopefully not too often. That’s why editors exist. But how about a paragraph? Or an extraneous detail that seems out of place?
Often novelists become so enthused about what we’ve learned that we just have to share it. Surely our readers will be enthusiastic, too. Surely they have been on the edge of their seats waiting for a list of the paint colors of VW bugs. Right?
Sometimes the difference between including a fact to enhance the reality of a situation and showing off is subtle. An author has to understand the difference and write accordingly.
Easier said than done.
My three steps often save me from myself.
If we concentrate on details too early, we will want to share them in the story, whether they fit or not. Remember skydiving shoes? I suggested that researching something that specific would happen at the end of research, not the beginning. Why? If I decided early on that I needed to know every item of clothing a skydiver might wear, then I would shoehorn it into my story, instead of using it when and where and if it’s appropriate. If is most important.
So, too much research can detract from a story. And too much research can suck up a novelist’s valuable time with no positive outcome. Like Casey, it’s sometimes better to just stop for a while and reconsider what’s important and what’s not. Then begin again with a better suit of armor.
I mentioned pleasures in the title.
I know so much more about many things that interest me because I chose to write about them and in the process, became better informed. In how many jobs can we decide what interests us and then work accordingly?
I’m about to begin a novel with stages one and two of my research finished. As I begin writing my pages, stage three is ahead.
This time I plan to walk carefully down the research road, and not fall into any potholes. But if you don’t hear from me for a while, you’ll know where to look.
BTW, if you got this month’s newsletter and noticed the error? Yes, I know St. Paddy’s day falls on the 17th, not the 18th. It’s a typo, but you have my whole-hearted support for celebrating both days. Casey says that in her family, St. Patrick’s is a week long holiday. I like the way she thinks.
You bring so many interesting topics and details regarding the process of writing ….I find it so interesting (sorry about re-using that word) to learn from you. I am not a writer as in author. But, for years in my career I wrote instructions for technology and geared it toward the most entry-level person. So as a result I find today that I go into too much detail when writing anything. My sons let me know this continually. 🙂
A great, insightful article, Em. Thanks!!!!
I enjoy reading how you go about doing your writing. I appreciate an author doing research. But sometimes an author shares too much. My book club frequently comments about so many books not being edited well; too many details are given that don’t add to the writing. We find this especially true in biographies. I don’t find that true of your writing.
That’s lovely to hear, Donalene. It’s such a temptation to say, “Oh look, look, this is so interesting, I just KNOW you’ll want to enjoy it, too.” I try not to, but it’s tough.