What I'm reading: No More Bull, by John Sharpe
Amazon, Books a Million, and Barnes & Noble.
Format: trade paperback.
You can read more of my contribution here
We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog post:
I've been reading manuscripts for a contest recently, submitted by unpublished authors. I've noticed a problem that I think is worth sharing. Research. Too much or too little.
Everyone's heard it: Write What You Know. But what does that really mean? Do you have to be a cop or PI to write a detective story? Can you write about a chef if you can barely boil water? If you're a firefighter, is that all you can write about?
Now, having the inside skinny on the workings of any profession, craft, or lifestyle will add depth and color to your work. Most of the time, agents and editors will want to know why you're the one who can write the book. They love platforms.
But it's not a hard and fast requirement. It's a matter of learning enough to keep things on the page accurate within the realm of fiction. And sometimes knowing too much can hurt your writing more than it helps. Two things to remember:
1. Don't write things you haven't researched.
2. Don't overwhelm your reader with what you know.
If what you're putting on the page is in an authorial voice, then you don't need it. At least not so it's obvious. The reader shouldn't feel like you've shifted gears when you shift from describing things you know a lot about, whether first-hand or from diligent research. It's your characters who have to relay this information to the reader. But even if your characters are remaining 100% true to the language and descriptions of the scenario, if what you're putting on the page is there because you're showing your readers your expertise, but isn't moving the plot forward, you don't need it.
I can remember, long, long, long ago, when we were first married, and my husband and the husband of one of our neighbors would talk photography. Hubster was working on his PhD and took lots and lots and lots of pictures of his subject matter (seals and sea lions, if you're interested). Our neighbor worked in a camera shop.
As our neighbor's wife put it—"Photographers talk in numbers." Which, if you listen in, is pretty much what it sounds like. "F8 at 1/60th." (There weren't many automatic cameras in those days, and you did have to learn about F-stops and shutter speeds.) But to the outsider, no matter how animated the discussion, it was boring. You don't want to bore your readers.
The flip side – not doing enough research. (Insert my "Don't thumb the safety off a Glock" lecture here!) Do you know enough about your subject matter to fill in those "color" details? Climate? Architecture? The right trees? Local terminology or speech patterns? Depending on where you live, you might be drinking pop, cola, or soda.
Or maybe your character has a dog, and she brings it with her to a restaurant. Is it legal in the setting of your book? Do you know the difference between a police officer and a deputy? The hardest part of research is knowing what you don't know so you can look it up.
You can get your information from the Internet, but you can also talk to people. When I was drafting my proposal that included the discovery of a dead body, I emailed the police department in the nearest city. The person answering my emails was delighted to give me more details than I could ever use (see 'too much research' above!) and was happy to answer my follow up questions as well.
In the same way we don't follow our characters through the story minute-by-minute, we have to learn how to distill our facts so everything on the page has a reason for being there, and that whatever we do put on the page is as accurate as we can make it.
Tomorrow my guest is Cicily Janus who's got some excellent insights into what agents look for in a submission.
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