“Give me just enough information so that I can lie convincingly.” ― Stephen King
It’s a rare novel which doesn’t require at least some research, but people don’t read fiction to learn the intricacies of forensic pathology or the art of underwater basket weaving. They read them to be entertained, and nothing can bog down your story like a two-page dissertation on digestive parasites in the middle of your romance novel.
Here are the things I keep in my when I do research for my own stories.
It’s all about the little things.
How long is the car ride Devon and Sandra take from Boston to Bangor? Does Devon’s 1958 Impala have two doors or four? How many times a week does Sandra’s karate class meet?
Questions like these crop up all the time when you’re writing, probably because we run into them in our own lives every day. And in my opinion, that means you have to get them right. For instance, if you study martial arts, you’ll know that going to the dojo once a week does not a serious student make. Three times a week (or more) is more like it. If an author gets that wrong, many readers will spot it right away and you lose credibility.
Just because it’s interesting to me, doesn’t mean it’s interesting to my reader.
The main character in my current WIP is a photographer, an occupation I had to research so I could write him convincingly. I picked up a lot of neat things about the art, but very little of what I learned is going to make it into the book. And in the second draft I’ll be editing out a lot of what I did put in.
That’s because my novel isn’t a photography textbook. All I’m looking for is a handle on how my main character might perceive the events around him, and just enough realism to keep my scenes believable. If I start writing about the lens he’s using to get a certain shot, then I’ve missed the point.
It’s not about being right, it’s about meeting expectations.
Ask any forensic scientist and they’ll tell you most of the tests you see done on television take days to run, not minutes and hours like they show on the screen. Real science takes time, but the average person was taught long ago to accept a shorter time frame in their fiction.
If your main character gets DNA results from the lab in three hours, you might be bending the truth a little, but most readers aren’t even going to notice, because they expect these tests to go quickly. And with a shorter time frame, you can keep the pace of your novel brisk. If you held yourself to what reality has to say, you’d have to be a lot more careful to keep things moving along.
Meet the reader’s expectations of reality first, then worry about what reality has to say.
How do you research?
What do you do when you sit down to research? Do you write first, research after? Do you pace out your research, doing a little at a time here and there, or do you do it all at once?