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Research: How much is enough?

I am sometimes asked ‘how much research is enough research?’ and I’m afraid I regularly annoy people with my reply: “that’s a ‘how long is a piece of string?’ question.”

The truth is the amount of research you need to do for a story is the amount you need to do it well. And that varies from writer to writer, from story to story.

If you’re writing book-length non-fiction, you betcha you need to do a lot of research. Non-fiction is expected to be well-informed and to be able to quote sources in the bibliography. Even if interviewing subject matter experts to fill out the book, the writer would be expected to have some particular deep interest and working knowledge of the topic. 

Fiction, however, is another beast entirely.

It’s not really “write what you know”

This leads me to that oft-quoted and frequently misunderstood notion of “write what you know”.

“Write what you know” does not mean “write who you are”.  If I was forced to only write characters exactly the same as me, I’d have a lot of white, middle class, middle-aged, chubby women living in Melbourne who write for a living. And I would set that book on fire and toast marshmallows over the flames. Not that I’m inherently dull, but a book full of people already exactly like me isn’t much of a challenge or much fun, not to mention offering limited plots.

It’s so much better to expand the concept of what “knowing” means in this context.

I am not a mother, a vampire, a murderer, a werewolf, a Victorian-era detective or a shape-shifting rat wizard (well, not that I’ve let any of you know) – but I have written all those things.

Because what I know is broader than who I am or the life events I’ve personally experienced.

I know what it is to love and to hurt. I know what it’s like to be a stranger in a strange land, and to then be a stranger in my own country. I’m not a mother but I love my siblings, my nieces and nephews, my extended family. I’m not a detective but I am curious about my world.  As I get older, I learn more, and understand that I know less than I thought I did.

I know what it is to be human and the universal elements of that: love, loss, empathy and self interest, the need for purpose, the search for meaning.

I know that there are many different ways of being human, and that there are many lives I haven’t lived, but I know that they’re all valid.

Some stories aren’t mine to tell, but that doesn’t mean I can’t include diverse people and experiences in my fiction. Where I lack personal knowledge of details, I have curiosity and openness to discovery. I have a willingness to listen and connect and learn.

As long as I create of all my characters as fully rounded people rather than stereotypes, and write respectfully of cultures and experiences that aren’t mine, there’s no reason I can’t include a diverse cast of characters whose lives are far removed from my own.

It’s more “know what you write”

The amount of research I do in any given story varies, because I’m often calling on different aspects of the real world to invent my own. In recent months, for my Patreon novel The She-Wolf of Baker Street, I’ve researched wolfsbane, oak, hazelwood and their real and supposed paranormal properties; I’ve spent time investigating the Google maps of the Snowdonia National Park; I’ve looked up how people with prosthetic limbs are supposed to take care of them. I’ve looked up the Latin name for garlic and the names of Welsh gods.

I own several books about the history of medicine and forensic science, and mark them up with sticky notes or use Evernote* to record useful details, so that when I’m writing a Victorian-era Holmes and Watson, I know exactly how much they know of both or can easily look that up in my reference database.

When it comes down to it, instead of “write what you know” the phrase should be “know what you write”. Whether you need to read deeply to understand more exactly the setting of your story, or to simply check details from time to time just to make sure you’re not getting a throwaway line horribly wrong – you research as much as you need to research to get it right.

All that research – where does it go?

For argument’s sake, let’s say you’ve read 15 books on a subject, interviewed three experts and done a TAFE course. You are so on top of this material! You’re going to write your book now, and deploy all this knowledge you have at your fingertips!

How much of that should you put into your book?

Not that much. Less than that. Even less. Put that bit back too.

And that.

Because the last thing you want to do is infodump on your reader. If they want a deep lecture on the topic, they can read the books, interview the experts and complete that TAFE course themselves. When you insist on sharing every tiny detail of your newly acquired knowledge and the story isn’t calling for that detail, you’re guaranteed to make your readers feel like they’re at a lecture.

Putting in the right bits – and leaving out the wrong bits

No. The whole point of the amount of research you do – however much research you do – is so that your world presents as authentic.  It can feel unrewarding, but honestly, a lot of research is about leaving out wrong bits. Putting the right bits in should be subtle and natural in the storytelling, not a four page summary ofthe history of air transport so that your air balloon fits contextually into the time period. Maybe it’s enough that you did an hour’s reading to know whether the air balloon can exist in that period.

Of course, you can do that research and write an alternative history. Go for it! That’s what the imagination is for – but your background research means you can break history’s logic knowledgably.

Sometimes I research a topic for fifteen minutes so that one reference to it in the manuscript is correct (or at least, not incorrect). This quick fact check can be on when particular words, tools and concepts came into use, to ensure I’m not introducing anachronisms into my historical fiction. A half day’s research might be represented in a single phrase, word or sentence being included. Or in being deleted! (I refer you to my essay “Deleting is Also Writing”* for balm on this distressing feature of research).

You Do You

Every writer has their own particular preference and style for both writing and research. I like to dip in and out, fact check or read more in depth, depending on what the story requires. Others like to research in-depth for years and produce a work steeped in that learning.

Find what works for you, tempered with what works for your story, and you’ll find your research path.

(As an aside, if you subscribe to my quarterly newsletter – link below – you get a free booklet of writing advice, including a section on how to use Evernote to create your own reference library and the essay on how Deleting is Also Writing.)

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