3 Cautions For Adding Research Into Stories

By Jody Hedlund, @JodyHedlund

I'm currently in research mode for my next book. 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 researching depends upon my familiarity with the subject.

For example, when I write my historicals that are set in my home state of Michigan, my research is easier and less time consuming.

But when I researched for Rebellious Heart (based on John and Abigail Adams), I had to spend quite a bit more time learning about the era, setting, and characters.

Whatever the case, no matter what we write, we'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 we don't do much research, then our story is often paper-thin. We only skim the surface when we choose to write about occupations, settings, and subject matter that are more general or widely known, that require little to no research on our part. Usually, those kinds of stories don't stand out as much, are already familiar to our readers, and thus have the potential of being less memorable.

However, with each little bit of research we do about a unique job our character has, or illness someone faces, or lifestyle of a community, etc., we're able to add authentic depth to our story. Each layer of research builds upon the last until soon we have a richer, more complex tale that will transport readers into a fascinating story-world.

I recently finished reading Becky Wade's new contemporary romance, Meant to Be Mine. Her hero was a bull rider. I could tell Becky had done her research about career bull riders. I appreciated the freshness of her story and learning about a whole new world of bull riding that was foreign to me.

Perhaps not all stories will have the layers upon layers of research that go into historicals (like the War Brides, which I'm currently reading). But all books can benefit from the uniqueness and depth that comes from research.

However, when adding in those layers of research, I would urge a few cautions:

1. Remember the iceberg principle. 

When we research, we'll gain a LOT of knowledge. In fact, we'll likely gain WAY more than we 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, we'll 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 us be more confident and lends authenticity to our voice and to the aura of the story.

2. Keep it simple, but don't dumb it down.

When we add in our research, we don't want to confuse our readers with terms that they don't understand or a rambling of details that only an expert in that field can decipher.

On the other hand, we don't want to dumb down our research or terms. And by all means, we want to avoid inserting our authorial voice to explain something.

It's best to find a balance between being overly complex and overly simple. We need to use specific words and real descriptions, but in such a way that our readers can mostly grasp the meaning from the context of the setting or situation.

3. Insert details strategically. 

Everything we place 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 we think it's interesting or because we want to show off our knowledge. Instead, the details need to serve a greater purpose.

We 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. We can keep our reader's attention and inform them at the same time if we weave in the little details in bite size pieces as a scene unfolds.

How about you? How much time do you spend on your research? Do you have any other cautions to issue regarding inserting research into stories?


  1. Pinning this post to my "writing" board. I write fantasy, but it is amazing how many things I have to research even for my made up world. My list for my current book includes: loom weaving, woodcarving, sign language, lip reading, navigation tools, and different sound waves. Other times it is just "how far can a man on a horse travel in a day" sort of things.

  2. Funny--- my first try at "research"--- as in outside of Google-- was an email I sent, asking for just a small bit of information. The reply was, in summary, "How much you gonna pay us?"

    Uh. Yeah.

    Google was my friend after that, LOL. I did more research with Sandwich though, as all my memories of Sandwich were about 25 years old!! Not great for a contemporary!

  3. Jody, all excellent points. I especially like the "iceberg principle." At a writing conference I attended early in my journey, I recall Randy Ingermanson warning against the "look how much research I've done" syndrome. I didn't think much about it until I saw it demonstrated not long after in a book by a multi-published author. The writer should always know more than he/she reveals. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Hi Jody

    Your blog post was very interesting because I've been busy researching and writing my third novel for the past eight months. One of my characters lived in a small French village throughout WW2 - a subject I knew little about from a French perspective.

    After two visits, several museum trips and reading many books both fiction and non-fiction about that particular era, I have nearly finished my book. I agree that adding too much research can make writing seem like a history lesson! Too little and there's not enough depth. The magic key is somewhere in the middle...I hope I've achieved that. *crosses fingers*

  5. A big caution is to be careful not to insert research in the exact wording you found in your research. Several authors, both fiction and nonfiction, have been caught in research plagiarism scandals by doing just that.

    My own research varies according to my project. The most research I had to do was for a reincarnation romance, TIME AFTER TIME, where the modern-day hero recreated and retold important moments in a number of his and the heroine's past lives. Most of these stories lasted no more than a chapter or two, but I had to do so much research that I might as well have written historical novels for each period.

  6. I have been doing a lot of research for a short story which is now seems to be growing into a novella. The research has given me more ideas to explore! The problem is, when I am writing I will suddenly find something else I want/need to research. I once did eight hours research (and borrowed a library book) just so I would have the correct facts - for one sentence. If the fact had been incorrect, historical costume buffs would have flayed me alive! (and I am one of them).

    1. The best thing to do in cases like this is to leave yourself an asterisk or some indicator like [find out when this poem was written] and keep moving forward with your story. Otherwise, you'll lose the story's momentum, and your muse will die of boredom or leave with your story unfinished.

  7. I love doing research for my historicals. While writing the chapter in my WIP largely set by the 1939 World's Fair, I had to resist temptation to write about each and every ride, show, restaurant, exhibit, pavilion, and souvenir!

    Re: too much research, I totally recommend against trying to cram each and every single event, invention, popular movement, etc., into a historical. What are the odds that every single person in a family and/or group of friends would take part in or be impacted by all these things in a given era? It really starts to feel like a history lesson, and very forced.

  8. Jody, I grew up in the Seattle area and have chosen to write about the Pacific Northwest for the same reason you write about Michigan. It's familiar and the research is more convenient.

    My research often shows up in the details--the name of a street, the reference to a bad winter, a historical name. It takes time to gather this information, and readers might not know a certain name is a real person and not made up, but for those with a deeper historic eye, they will appreciate the intentionality--like you with Becky's book.

    Another way research comes out in my writing, is through conversation. In my WIP I have two men discussing land preservation and the pursuit of national parks (1870's). Most readers won't know that the frustrations they mention about certain areas of the US being exploited came from actual events I researched. In the conversation, it's just a few lines in passing, but spoken in character voice, the specific research adds depth to the character's motives.

  9. I've really enjoyed reading all of your comments, everyone! Thank you for adding your thoughts! You've offered some great additional tips, and I'm learning from YOU! :-) T

  10. Research is my favorite form of brainstorming. I might tend to research more than I need for a particular story,but I then use the additional research for another story. I'm not fond of reading stories with huge chunks of info dump or narrative interruption where suddenly the author is telling me things when moments before I was in a character's head. I'd rather the character continue and tell me the information.

    I think weaving research in to an intense scene is a good way to utilize the information while also moving the story along. But in truth, of course I want to just put in all the research..hard to realize the readers won't know everything.


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