Flash Writing Tip: Research — How Much Is Enough?

Researching the Thieftaker books and stories has been a great deal of fun.  Lots of work, yes, but incredibly interesting and gratifying.  And weaving that research into the text of the books has been fun, too.  There is something incredibly gratifying about sliding a key historical detail into a scene in a way that makes that moment in the narrative come alive and ring true.

But as with all things, research and the use of researched details has to be done in moderation.  Too much research and the writing never gets finished; too many details and the narrative gets lost in an avalanche of data dumps.  So how do we decide how much is enough?  How do we keep from overdoing it?

When it comes to the actual research I do before writing a book, I like to limit myself by coming up with a series of questions that I need to answer.  That list of questions allows me to limit my search for information, and it gives me a finite guideline for the preparatory work I have to ahead of time.  Now, it is absolutely true that more often than not, researching one question will lead me to five more questions I had not anticipated.  Research doesn’t proceed in a linear fashion.  Rather it blossoms, like secondary fireworks blooming after the primary explosion.  But still, if I have that initial list of questions, and if I am careful to write down the secondary questions as they occur to me, eventually I will come to a point where I have information on pretty much everything I wanted to know for the purposes of the book.  After that, it’s a matter of extracting myself from an inherently addicting process and simply telling myself “Enough!  It’s time to write.”

Once I have turned to writing my book, I also have to resist the urge to share with my readers every interesting tidbit I’ve found.  The fact is, even taking care to place boundaries around my research, I still wind up finding lots and lots of superfluous stuff.  There is no shortage of interesting stuff out there about pre-Revolutionary Boston.  But not all of it is essential to my story, my character work, or even my worldbuilding.  And so I try to apply a simple test to the information I provide to my readers:  Do they have to know it?

If a certain historical detail is central to the story then certainly I include it.  If it’s not essential, but it adds a good deal of ambiance without cluttering up my narrative, then usually I will add that, too.  If it’s really cool, but it has little or no bearing on my story, then I will usually cut it.  Well, I might include it, but it has to be REALLY cool, and it can’t detract in any way from the story I’m trying to tell.  If it’s just cool, but is in other ways not relevant, then it doesn’t make it into the book.

The corollary to the “Do they have to know it?” test is the “Do they have to know it NOW?” test.  Sometimes a detail might be crucial to the story, but it might not come to bear on the narrative for another hundred pages.  If that’s the case, then in the interests of flow and clarity, I don’t include it until it’s time has come.

Clearly, every book is different, every detail is different, every author is different.  My tests work for me, as do the criteria I use to answer those questions.  You might approach these issues differently and you might use or discard details that I would use in another way. That’s fine.  The key is this:  You need to know a lot more about your setting, your characters, your background material than your readers do.  Just because you don’t use a detail that doesn’t mean that you’ve wasted your time finding it.  Sometimes just understanding the history (or science, or craft, or whatever else you might research) is enough to add richness and depth to your story.  The sheer weight of your knowledge of certain things can be conveyed without specific details, but rather through the authority and confidence with which you write about them.  I didn’t include in Thieftaker anywhere NEAR all that I learned about 1760s Boston.  But I know the terrain well enough that I was able to convey contour and feel without getting bogged down in detail.  And ironically doing MORE research enables you to encumber your narrative with LESS superfluous detail.

So do the research you need to do; give the details that enhance your story.  But don’t overdo it.

And, as always, keep writing.

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2 Responses to Flash Writing Tip: Research — How Much Is Enough?

  1. Tim Rohr says:

    Good stuff, DJack. I’m just catching up on some web reading that I’d missed, and this tip struck a chord with me… not surprising, perhaps, given our previous conversations on ground similar to this.

    I agree with the picture you paint, that of two perils, alike in indignity,
    In this fair plough, where you lay your blog:
    *ahem*

    1) Writing a scene so threadbare the reader knows the author was making it up as s/he went along.

    2) Writing superfluous details into the narrative because the author learned it (imagined it, named it, worked out the currency exchange rate to buy it in the neighboring country), so, by god, the reader will, too.

    A little sensitivity during the research/planning can go a long way at avoiding the former; a little sensitivity during the writing can avoid the latter, I think.

  2. dbjackson says:

    Thanks for the comment, Tim. Your final point is well put — and far more succinct than my post. Perhaps you should be writing these!

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