I always enjoy when I have the chance to talk with readers and book groups. Whether via a library presentation, through a Skype session, or in person, readers always ask me about my research:
How do you do all your research? How much time does it take? Do you try to visit the places that you’re researching?
Since I’m a historical writer, research is an integral part of my writing process.
Usually I spend weeks researching and plotting before I write one word. The exact amount of time I spend on research depends upon my familiarity with the subject.
When I write my historicals that are set in my home state of Michigan, my research is easier and less time consuming. I’m intimately familiar with the weather, the terrain, the seasons, etc. I’m able to find plenty of books at the library regarding the history of Michigan. And it’s easy to jump into my van and take a day trip to a nearby lighthouse or historical site.
However, some of my other books aren’t quite as easy to research and require quite a bit more time learning about the era, setting, and characters. For example, my historical Newton and Polly is set in England in the 1700’s. I wasn’t able to hop in my van and ride over to Chatham in Kent, England for the day. Even if I had been able to, the area looks vastly different from what it was like during the Georgian era.
Whatever the case, no matter what an author writes whether historicals, contemporaries, or even futuristic stories, she’ll have to spend some effort researching, if not before writing, then at the very least during the editing to verify details.
I believe that research adds layers to a story.
If writers don’t do much research, then the story is often paper-thin. They only skim the surface when they choose to write about occupations, settings, and subject matter that are more general or widely known, that require little to no research. Usually, those kinds of stories don’t stand out as much, are already familiar to readers, and thus have the potential of being less memorable.
However, with each little bit of research writers do about a unique job a character has, or illness someone faces, or lifestyle of a community, etc., they’re able to add authentic depth to the story. Each layer of research builds upon the last until soon there’s a richer, more complex tale that will transport readers into a fascinating story-world.
Perhaps not all stories will have the layers upon layers of research that go into historicals. But all books can benefit from the uniqueness and depth that comes from research.
However, when adding in those layers of research, I try to keep in mind a few simple principles so that I don’t bore my readers:
1. Remember the iceberg principle.
When writers research, they’ll gain a LOT of knowledge. In fact, they’ll likely gain WAY more than they need. I find that happens quite frequently. I’ll read several long articles on a topic, but then only use one tiny detail out of all the information I’ve gleaned.
With the iceberg principle, writers should strive keep the majority of the knowledge under the surface and out of the story. Only a little bit will actually show up in the book. But that large foundation helps lend authenticity to an author’s voice and to the aura of the story.
2. Keep it simple, but don’t dumb it down.
When authors add in research, they should avoid confusing readers with too many unfamiliar terms or a rambling of details that only an expert in that field could decipher.
On the other hand, authors don’t want to dumb down their research or terms. And by all means, they should avoid inserting their authorial voice to explain something.
It’s best to find a balance between being overly complex and overly simple. Authors can use specific words and real descriptions, but in such a way that readers can mostly grasp the meaning from the context of the setting or situation.
3. Insert details strategically.
Everything an author places in the story should add some value whether it relates to the character, setting, plot, or theme. Nothing should ever be thrown in randomly or haphazardly or just because it’s interesting or because an author wants to show off her knowledge. Instead, the details need to serve a greater purpose.
Writers also want to avoid having big chunks of research information all in one place. Too much exposition (explanation), will cause readers to skim or skip ahead to the next paragraph of action or dialogue. Authors can inform and keep the reader’s attention and at the same time if they weave in the little details in bite size pieces as a scene unfolds.
How about YOU? What are some ways that authors can keep from boring you with their research details?
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