Keeping Research in its Place

You want your novel to be accurate. You’ve heard horror stories of disgusted readers who stopped reading a book because they spotted errors. So you dive into research. That’s a good thing, right?
Writing Tip for Today: While research can be a valuable tool for novel writers, in my experience it can easily grow fangs and talons and stomp around on your story like a beast. Here are my thoughts on keeping research in its place:

  • Designate and Separate. Use research for accuracy and atmosphere. Research, especially in historical novels, is a necessary part of making a time period come to life. Many writers immerse themselves in their research for months, and I’ve known a lot of them who acted as if the research was lots more fun than the writing itself. Assign yourself separate times for researching and for writing, and be sure the writing takes as much time as that “fun” research. Go ahead, collect magazine or newspaper clippings,  photos or even actual period pieces. But don’t let your writing life lay fallow on the pretense of research.
  • When you write, write. It’s also tempting to stop your stream of thought to go look something up as you are writing a draft. Get into the habit of inserting some type of placeholder where the correct info will be. One of my colleagues uses the acronym SSLT to remind him to insert the facts later. Stands for Some S** Like That. When I see this in a later writing session, I’ll have already looked up what I didn’t know in the previous session. You can type a note in all caps, put in a blank line to be filled in later or think of your own placeholder.
  • Resist the Urge to Explain. Once you have researched a topic thoroughly, chances are you’re dying to share all that cool info you dug up on the Civil War or whatever you’re writing about. Accept the fact that you will likely have way too much information to fit into the novel. In fact, many novelists bog down their stories with little history lessons disguised as scenes or narratives. Here’s where the temptation arises to information load the dialogue or let characters give encyclopedic responses. Just because you know a lot of stuff doesn’t mean you have to foist all that stuff on the poor reader. Research must be skillfully woven into the main story, not blasted at the reader from all fronts.
  • Research isn’t Meant to Take Over. Try to remember that as enjoyable as research can be, the more time you spend doing it the less time you’ll have to write. All the research in the world can’t make a character come to life, can’t convince a reader to follow the story. Good research complements but doesn’t take over a story.

What are your favorite research sites? What’s the worst factual error you’ve ever found in a published novel?

About Linda S. Clare

I'm an author, speaker, writing coach and mentor. I teach both fiction and nonfiction writing at Lane Community College and in the doctoral program as expert writing advisor for George Fox University. I love helping writers improve their craft and I'm both an avid reader and writer of stories about those with wounded hearts.

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