Monday, September 12, 2011

Research: Too Much or Too Little

What I'm reading: No More Bull, by John Sharpe

First – after many delays, DECEPTION, a mystery anthology including one of my short stories, is available for sale at 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I've been reading manuscripts for a contest recently, submitted by unpublished authors.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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Beth Trissel said...

Very good post, Terry, and such an important subject. One I have agonized over and still do. research is vital but how much and when to show it, also vital.

Margaret Fieland said...

Terry, great post. When I write about something, I need to research it to the point where I feel comfortable putting my character in the scene. For my first book, I researched house fires and injuries due to fires -- most of the fire stuff ended up as backstory, but until I could picture how the fire happened and how the characters were injured, I couldn't write about it.

I also remember reading a book by a well-known author in which the main character was a composer and flute player (I play the flute). The composition stuff was completely believable, and she didn't make any mistakes with respect to the flute playing, but IMO she missed an opportunity in one spot, where the main character discussed writing about the difficulties of the instrument. A few details about here could have really made the flute playing more believable.

Hart Johnson said...

I think nothing drives me more nuts that someone who gives me a lecture in a novel on how some mechanical process or something works. I write my mysteries from the PoV of an amateur sleuth so she doesn't HAVE to know technicalities... that said, she IS a PR expert (something I have a former lifetime at) and lives in Roanoke (where I've never been) and a gardening expert (which I don't do much of)--these were all editor required details and the second two I have to research. I tend to research them, though, after the fact--[detail that does XYZ here] or I overdo it. That is the difference between things the author is really expert in and researched details, I think. Real expertise flows more naturally because you are used to what you do and don't talk about. The new research is really easy to overshare, so I don't look it up until I know exactly the parameters of what i want to fit there.

Terry Odell said...

Beth. I think everyone SHOULD agonize about what to show on the page. It means you're thinking about the story.

Margaret - those little details can be trickled in and give depth to the story without bogging things down.

Hart - good advice. I tend to follow that line as well. In Danger in Deer Ridge, I needed to know something about xeriscaping, but all that ended up on the page was a plant that would grow well in the environment and barely two sentences about what it meant (which was helped by having the protagonist say, "What does that mean?")

Meredith L. said...

I agree with Hart: I write first, insert researched details later. If I need to know something quickly - did they have wood or stone floors in feudal Japan? - I can do that, but in general I like to get my draft out first, and then fill in the gaps. I find it flows better if I go back and change some dialogue here, or insert a sentence there, rather than going on and on and on about a detail that no one but me cares about.

Case in point. I have a chapter in which my protagonist and antagonist have a private discussion. I wrote it and liked it, and then I did research on the type of bad guy my antag is: he's a megalomaniacal sociopath, sort of Ted Bundy meats Adolf Hitler. So I did my research and then went back and changed some of his dialogue and a few details of his behavior. I think he's much scarier now because he's more authentically a sociopath that no sane person should ever want to be left alone with.

Calisa Rhose said...

Great post Terry. When writing HOME- my soon to be released w/TWRP- I knew some, but not enough about the Vietnam era. I spent one day researching the subject and then used very little of the pages upon pages of notes when I wrote it. Why? Because my story isn't about the war. It's about a couple who lived through it during one small time span. For my medical book I contacted a mediflight operation in Missouri because that is where the story is set. My hero needed to be authentic. My contact there read an accident scene for me, followed it up with an hour long phone call to help me 'get it real'. Ruby was priceless during my research time on that book (yet to sell).

Thanks for the wonderful tips.

Maryann Miller said...

Excellent post, Terry. Finding that balance between what we should know and what we should put on the page can be a challenge. I especially liked, "The hardest part of research is knowing what you don't know so you can look it up."

Often I don't know what I don't know until I get to a spot in the story where suddenly I need to know a detail about a particular gun. That's when I make a note to do some research. But I don't stop the story to research then, I just keep writing until I run out of steam, then do the research.

Katherine said...

Great post, Terry. I tend to put more of the research information than I need to in my first draft. At the first rewrite, I take half out. At the second rewrite, I take half out again. It's easier for me to distill the information down to only what's really necessary during the revision stage. It's also one of the things I ask my beta reader to keep an eye out for.

Scotty (ppw) said...

Hi, Terry. Interesting post.

I've been working on a novel set on the Blackfeet Indian reservation in northwestern Montana. It's "front range" so I assumed the landscape, flora, and fauna would be pretty much like it is here in Colorado. But realizing the limitations of Google Maps--even with satellite view, Panoramio, and Wiki--I went to the reservation this past July and spent a week there.

Wow was I ever wrong. The aspen groves in NW Montana are radically different then they are in in Colorado. The flora, and therefore the ability to track someone, or even move, underneath the conifer forests of the foothills are radically different than what I know from Colorado. And then I talked to a hospital administrator and realized vast chunks of my mid-story would need to change too.

But I had a blast and met some awesome people. One rancher drove me around for an hour and we discussed some key scenes that take place on his land. Turns out the ground was too hard to leave tracks, and the grass too short, but he had a workable suggestion. And he had a specific name for the predominant shrub that dotted his land (diamond willow rather than just willow, plus the wild roses were little more than knee-high "weeds").

I did have one pre-trip success though--my public wedding scene at North American Indian Days (the big July powwow). A tribal elder read my scene, offered a few minor suggestions and corrected the spelling of a Pikani word, but the main thrust of the scene was right. This elder even told me the story of his own courtship, which reinforced a key idea in the scene.

I'd rather do too much research, and then not use parts of it, than not do enough.


PS: After this novel, I'd love to do one set on the Isle of Skye. Suppose I should take a research trip to Scotland?

Terry Odell said...

Meredith - adding depth in rewrites is always a good thing.

Calisa - people can be great. When I was writing Rooted in Danger, I found a pilot who helped me make sure my flight scenes were accurate -- he even called me one day telling me he'd made a mistake and that I needed to swap out my aircraft because the first one would have required 2 people to fly it. Those kinds of details are priceless.

Maryann - I agree; if the story can flow without a detail, I flag it and keep writing (such as, "Insert plant here")

Katherine - yep. Get it on the page first, fix it later.

Scott - first hand is always better if you can swing it. I've tried to set my books in places I've been, but sometimes you have to rely one second hand information. Thanks for sharing.