Saturday, May 30, 2009

Using Research in Your Book

Some books require vivid imagination. Some books require tons of research.

Now, you might think I’m talking fiction vs. nonfiction. But a lot of fiction requires extensive research. Historicals - learning about the time, language, clothes of the period, etc. Mysteries/Suspense - discovering how various poisons work or how FBI agents behave, and so forth. SciFi/Fantasy - creating imaginary worlds, beings and science that have a believable basis.

The author has to do all the work of making sure it’s believable, accurate, and thorough. That research can take hours, days, weeks, months. Even years, in some cases. It can be exhilarating to find all the answers, to know you’ve gotten it right, and to share it with your readers.

And that’s where authors can sometimes make a big mistake.

Putting all that research in a book can be a killer error. Instead of sounding almost like a nonfiction, believable and real, it comes across as info dump. It puts the reader to sleep or makes them skip pages of facts and information. Instead of white space that makes the reader want to keep reading, the pages are ink, ink, ink, ink -- that can make them skip or drift off into nap land.

Talk to your readers. Is your book reading like a history lesson? A textbook? A how-to on herding goats, or whatever? Do you really need all that? Would your book be better off if it were less dense or pedantic? Can you get across the idea, concept, or material without breaking it down into minute steps or dragging your readers along on your months of research?

You don’t want to cut everything you’ve learned. The book needs to be believable. Just keep in mind that the book also needs to be readable.
TweetIt from HubSpot


  1. Good subject and some valuable points to consider here. I had to research Lupus disease for my Owen Fiddler novel cuz Owen's wife had the disease and I had to be up on the symptoms, medications, etc. And I'm writing a detective story right now that has required me learning police codes, call numbers, etc. Also another story I'm writing where the heroine is a mountain climber and I've never climbed anything more than a tall ladder so gotta bone up on the gear, techniques, etc.

    But you're right, you can't overdo it with regurgitating all your vast knowledge on a subject all over the story to the point of it sounding like a textbook. Has to be subtle.

    The Old Silly from Free Spirit Blog

  2. I just spent almost an HOUR researching names to make sure my characters name was perfect and the meaning fit the little story in my head. That is insanity!

    Anyhow, I think research is inevitable in writing. In my first novel I had to research all sorts of medical terms and cities and music and heaven. It was a blast. I felt a bit smarter after writing it.


  3. I know what you mean, Marybeth. There are times when you finish research and feel as though you could write your thesis.

  4. That's a very good point, Helen. I think it's important for the background/history/setting to fit naturally into the book, and not read like a manual or guide to your universe. Great post. Sorry I haven't been visiting as much. :( My blogroll doesn't tell me when things are updated and I'm still in the middle of moving. I hope to be all moved in and back to regular visits soon. I always enjoy your blog.


  5. I know right! Who needs to go to college when you write for a living!

    PS Thanks for visiting my blog. I don't usually update that one, but the other one I do daily :D

  6. This is a good reminder. We need to find that balance! Yesterday I was researching female circumcision just to add a few sentences of context to my travel memoir. I love researching and learning, but it's amazing how much time I can put in learning about a topic just for a few words in the book!

  7. My research is more of an immersion process, rather than a crash-course in whatever. I absorb the knowledge, I wallow in it, I live it. I listen to appropriate music, watch similar movies, and read relevant research books.

    That way, when I write the story, the info comes out naturally because I truly do know about the subject, and come across as less of a buffoon or someone that read a few paragraphs and decided to write a book on the subject.

  8. I am so with you on this, Helen. I can't tell you how many times I've skipped stuff while reading - boring!!

  9. Hello Jenny! Are you moving far?

    Marybeth - maybe go to college first, then write. (Speaking as a parent.)

    Ooh, ooh, Alexis, that does not sound like a fun topic to research!

    Shadows, wouldn't it be great if we could live all our research? Writing about a circus performer, join a traveling group. Writing about rock climbing, then do it. That would be great.

    Karen, I am so with you on that. When I'm editing, though, I can't skip.

  10. It's my experience that all the research, while it may not show up on the page, still positively informs the prose. The more you know about a topic that is in the story the better--and more subtly--you can portray it.

  11. That's the way to use your research - incorporate it into the story so that it gives your work credence without weighing it down.

    Thanks, writtenwyrdd.

  12. This is SO true! When I'm reading a novel that suffers from research bloat, it feels like I'm in a class lecture. Thanks for the reminder about this issue!

  13. Helen excellent post as always. I love the research side of writing fiction. I research even for short stories sometimes.

  14. I spent more than two years behind a microfilm machine during the mid-1980s to research a nonfiction centennial history book. Never again! For my novels, I research as I write, spooning in just enough research to make the story believable. Your post reminded me of the last Jean Auel novel I read, that contained so much of her research that I lost track of the storyline.


  15. Helen,

    you won a book raffle on my blog. Enemies & Allies. I need your address.

  16. Jean and Kelly, you are so right. Sometimes it feels the author did so much work that s/he can't bear to let anything go to waste so they do a research dump in the book.

    Ah, Lauri, you are a dream. Someone who loves researching! I love having the research, but not necessarily the time it takes to do it.

    Yay! Brooke. I won, I won. Don't know what, for sure, but I won!

  17. Research should inform your writing, not instruct your readers. You want it to guide you so that your prose remain believable and you don't shatter the reader's willing suspension of disbelief.

    I had someone tell me recently that they write fantasy, so they did not need to worry about stuff like physics. Wrong. Sure, you can break the laws of physics (among others) as long as you develop a believable explanation of your world. But even fantasy requires a modicum of research.

  18. Excellent post Helen. Research is one of my hot spots. I know it has to be done - it's part of the job of being a writer - but it's not my favourite part. I don't mind it, but I do find I get bogged down with it. I'd rather do revisions any day, then decide which bits of my research I have to leave out and which I have to put in!!

  19. I agree that research is necessary yet should not scream "I've done my homework!" in the text. The best reason for doing your research is that if you don't, there will be a reader out there who knows what you don't, and they'll probably say so. It's so not fun to wipe egg off your face.

  20. Sheesh, Helen, I can't imagine who you might mean with that: "It puts the reader to sleep or makes them skip pages of facts and information. Instead of white space that makes the reader want to keep reading, the pages are ink, ink, ink, ink -- that can make them skip or drift off into nap land."....

  21. Ahh, Christoph, you made me laugh. I actually was not thinking of your manuscript when I wrote this. I had just finished reading a published book that I kept slogging through until finally I gave up and put it away. When I say I had just finished reading it, what I mean is that I had just quit reading it.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...