Adding that special dash of research

Dear Patty,

Using research in narrative is like cooking with Cayenne pepper — largely a matter of taste and good judgment.

Before you start cooking with literary cayenne, you must do two things. The first is to research until you know what your character knows and until you feel part of his world. The second is to use research to shape the plot and characters at the planning stages of your book. Both of these things will add veracity to your novel and make stirring research into the mix easier and more believable.

Back when I was a puppy writer, I went to a workshop where a published author told us, “You should only use about ten percent of the research you do for your novel.” I suspect the percentage is lower than since it is light, humorous books that are so popular in the romance market today, and in literary historicals like COLD MOUNTAIN and THE DRESS LODGER or E. L. Doctrow’s THE MARCH..

Making the decision about how much research to include in your work is a taste thing and depends largely on the market you re targeting. The point is YOU CAN’T USE ALL YOUR RESEARCH, and the ten percent limit seems like a pretty good rule of thumb. Of course then you must decide, which ten percent?

The answer is, the ten percent that’s PERTINENT to telling the story, to creating the world your characters — and ultimately your readers — will inhabit. You generally add the information in small doses and as nonchalantly as possible. (With a shrug, I like to think of it.) As if wasn’t something extraordinary –which of course it isn’t — at least in your characters’ lives.

You can add that research in conversation or exposition, through action or introspection. You add it as simply as possible — i.e.: In the three hours the train passed through Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, Susan…

You also need to decide which p.o.v. character to use to introduce the research. This is where knowing what your character knows comes in. For example, the boiler deck on a river boat is not where the boilers are; the boiler deck is what we would think of as the second floor. The captain of the boat knows this; his passenger might not. Thus you introduce this information from the passenger’s p.o.v..

If you re having a really hard time excluding research material, write a first draft that’s just for you, one that includes all that obscure stuff you love. Then when your ardor has cooled, look at the manuscript subjectively. After that go back and kill your darlings.

Remember that in fiction, the needs of the story ALWAYS SUPERSEDE the brilliance of the research.

Conversely, there are times when an author needs to convey a large block of information to the reader and do it as painlessly as possible. The most obvious way is to work it into conversation, or perhaps to toss it back and forth in the course of a discussion. Break these blocks of information with action, reactions, and especially insights or emotions from the p.o.v. character.

Using public speeches or business presentations can work this same way, but with the same caveat.

Including letters, telegrams, and notes makes the reader feel like a voyeur. Newspaper articles generated by the author and indented in the body of the text can also serve to the purpose of providing an avenue for research. And finally, Rita Award winner Susan Wiggs offers this sage advice for presenting difficult concepts or material, “Readers pay attention to what character say IN BED.”

The other thing research does is create ambiance, verisimilitude. As you sprinkle tidbits about the character’s world into the text, remember those tidbits should be used judiciously and sparingly. Try to make them do double duty, using them to augment actions or attributions. “You may go!” Martin shouted and strode to the tall Paladin window that looked out into the boxwood garden and waited for Gwendolyn to take her leave.

Or allow research or description fit the mood intend to create. “The room was spare and serene,” sets a very different mood from, “The table’s carved wooden base was burnished to a rich tawny finish that gave it the texture of oozing caramel syrup.”

Architect Mies Van Der Rohe proclaimed that, “God is in the details.” Getting the nuances of your research right, will go a very long way toward convincing your readers that you know what you’re talking about.

Your own taste and judgment — and a critique partner who’ll tell you the truth — should guide you as to how much research to include in your story. And remember, using research judiciously is a skill that gets easier with practice.

Just like all the rest of this.

May you and your delete key live happily ever after.

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