Researching for a novel is in some ways akin to making good biscuits. You need practice, common sense, good instincts, and a deft hand.
Mix the biscuit dough too long, and what should be a delectable morsel of hot, flaky goodness will be flat and tough.
Research too long, and you’ll procrastinate getting started or you’ll end up with too much information to cram into the story. Result? A flat, dull, hard-to-read story too heavy with info-dumps.
If you twist the biscuit dough as you cut it, you seal the edges and make it difficult for the biscuits to rise while baking.
If you contort your story to fit in some prize piece of information you’ve discovered, you’re damaging your plot and short-changing the drama.
Handle the dough too much while kneading or rolling it out, and the warmth of your skin will soften the butter too soon, destroying your chances of creating a tender, flaky biscuit.
Focus too hard on your facts and data, and you’ll forget that your responsibility belongs primarily to your plot and characters.
The first novel I sold had a historical setting. This was long before the Internet was a gleam in anyone’s eye. Research was done the old-fashioned way–by visiting a library and poring over musty old tomes and encyclopedias while standing barefoot in the snow.
With that book, set in 1797 London, I knew the limitations of my resources, and I was worried. My writing coach at the time–suspense novelist Robert L. Duncan–gave me invaluable advice.
He said, “Plot the book first. Then you’ll know what you need to research. If you research first, you’ll gather too much of the wrong thing.”
Such simple wisdom steadied me at the time and gave me the confidence to believe in my story, to complete it, and to see it through to publication. Since that early experience, I’ve tried hard to stick with Bob’s recommendation.
Any time I’ve deviated from it, I’ve regretted it big-time. The three over-researched books I’ve written during my professional career haven’t sold.
They were all long, complicated, over-blown efforts involving too much material.
One of these clunkers sent me digging deeper and deeper into the whole controversy over whether people can or cannot suffer from multiple-personalities. I even interviewed a practicing psychiatrist–who provided me with terrific insights and details. But the more I learned, the worse I designed my character until all I had was a highly improbable, contrived, implausible construction instead of a good, scary villain.
Another clunker got me so wrapped up in all that I was learning about my setting that I contrived an entire section of the book in order to use what I’d researched.
Guess what my agent did when he read the manuscript? Yep! He requested that I remove that part of the story–all 20,000 useless words of it.
So time and experience have taught me the merit of Bob’s early piece of advice. My sometimes very limited resources at the start of my career meant that I learned to rely on my intuition and instincts. I had to craft a good story because I couldn’t rely on too much data.
These days, I’m very grateful for the ease and accessibility of material via the Internet. However, I’ll caution you that what’s so readily available comes with an even deeper pit of quicksand.
It’s great that I can now run a computer search to find the information I need. No longer do I have to wait on inter-library loan. But I have to be more vigilant than ever to avoid the information overload that can clog my common sense and smother my story instincts.
You research just enough to get the facts right, just enough to make what your characters are doing plausible. The rest of the story, you write from your heart.
Overdo it, and your story will be as unpalatable as a tough old lump of biscuit.