Too Much of a Good Thing Part 5
Hi, I’m Lyssa Medana and this is a series of articles with my thoughts on research and the fiction author. I hope that you can use them as a starting point for your own writing journey.
When to Walk Away from Research
When it comes to too much research, I am a bad example. I go down all the rabbit holes. I research obscure things that make no sense. There is such a thing as too much research and I am a living example of it.
If you are writing fiction, the most important thing is the story. You want compelling characters, fantastic adventures, sharp dialogue, and enough description to take us along with the narrative. You do not need a dissertation on the properties of petunias. You need passion, not the composition of fourteenth century Italian paint.
When I was researching Out of the London Mist, I learned all about nettle cloth. I was intrigued by it. I found out about cloth made from stinging nettles in neolithic settlements and wrapped around Egyptian mummies. I read about production in Nepal and current sources of the stuff. I learned about nettle rope and yarn and even got side-tracked into soup and caterpillars. You won’t find any of that in Out of the London Mist, though, because it didn’t add to the plot.
At the start of these articles, I wrote that you needed to research in order to avoid looking like an idiot. You also need to know when to stop researching so that you don’t look like a pedant, or worse, a bore. When you write your amazing story, do you want a reader to be swept away by the plot and characters? If so, you don’t want to hide your hard work with too much pedantic detail.
Sometimes details help the story. In Out of the London Mist, I used descriptions of food to support the story. When Lord John, who was born an aristocrat, was served mutton chops by Lady Clara, who was born into the middle classes, there is a statement here as mutton was seen very much as a middle class food. I could have equally added one character whispering to another that the dinner served was very middle class (not that Lord John would have noticed or cared) to support the class tension. The class tension was there because it was working with the plot. I referred to a meal plan from a popular Victorian cookbook to add colour. I didn’t mention that cookbook. If I had put a list of cookbooks and their relative merits into the mouth of one of the characters, it would have gone far too far. Only use research that adds to the writing.
Sometimes a cunning piece of research can add to a plot. You can sneak in a tiny detail, and a few pages later that snippet of research is suddenly the pivot of the plot. Knowing that the earliest bronze tools were alloyed with arsenic and not tin is a useful snippet if a murder is set in an obscure archaeological dig and the victim is poisoned with arsenic ore that was found there. If there is no poison, no murder, and no further use for that detail, it’s not worth mentioning. It’s just padding, and I’d rather read about the exciting midnight chase through shady alleyways.
If your research adds to the plot, the storyline, the story arc, or the characters, then you should add it in heaps. If it doesn’t, then be brave and junk it. Otherwise you run the risk of being the writing equivalent of the person who, in the middle of an hilarious joke, interrupts with, "well, actually…."
I think of research as shapewear for the story. It can make things tighter and the curves more exciting, but it’s not the best bit and it really shouldn’t be seen. And sometimes, less is more. Unless it’s having fun writing, in which case more is always better!
Find the rest of the series here:
Lyssa Medana is a 50-something author living in West Yorkshire, UK. Her works include The Forgotten Village, Digging up the Past, Cats in the Bible, Dinner at Dark and Tales from the White Hart. Lyssa also regularly publishes poems and short stories on her blog, Always Another Chapter. You can find the first book in her Aether Trails series, Out of the London Mist, here: https://threefuriespress.com/products/out-of-the-london-mist-by-lyssa-medana. The first of the Magic Awakening, King's Silver, is available on Kindle Unlimited https://amzn.to/3MkEHVe