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?

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