Photo by Prateek Katyal on Unsplash
By Lana Christian
Sooner or later, novelists ask, “How much research is enough?”
That begs a more basic question: why do research?
We research so we can write plausible, realistic stories that exceed the limits of our experience.
That applies equally to historical and contemporary novels.
Research and readers’ radar
Ernest Hemingway said all great writers have a “built-in, shockproof, s**t detector.” I submit that writers need said detector because our readers already possess one. Their inborn radar starts pinging the minute they open a book. History buffs or not, readers morph into super sleuths that can detect inconsistencies in whatever you want to convey as real and accurate in your story. The minute readers sense something is out of place or unreasonable, it throws them out of the story. That’s bad news for everyone.
I was enthralled reading a book that swept me through ancient battles across Near East countries. But, in a pivotal early scene, the main character (MC) pulls a Torah out of his backpack and barters it away to a trader. A Torah scroll was huge and weighed fifty pounds. How could he fit one in his backpack, let alone haul it around as he fled bad guys? (Note: Due to a birth defect, the MC couldn’t run. And mini-Torahs didn’t exist until a few years ago.) That scene stuck in my mind like a splinter embedded in my finger.
What research details do you need?
Whatever is necessary to substantiate your story. Let your plot, characters, and setting decide how much detail you need to include.
Here’s a checklist of four common categories of research:
- Language(s) spoken and idioms used
- Furniture, food
(2) Character motivations
For example, in my first-century novel, my MC dodges a temporary, contractual marriage that would have provided protection to his orphaned cousin. We don’t have any law remotely resembling that today, but it’s a key piece of my MC’s backstory.
(3) Features that uniquely identify your character
- Preferred weapon
- A prominent scar
(How did they get it?)
- Inborn or acquired limitations
(Ailments were treated differently historically vs currently; did that affect your character?)
(4) Sources of tension and conflict
Politics and religion can create both physical danger (external conflict) and emotional turmoil (internal conflict).
Pitfalls and rewards of research
Finding resources online is absurdly easy these days—which also makes it absurdly easy to run down rabbit holes that take you off task.
Recognize when you’re delving into details just because they interest you. Learning is never wasted, but get back to writing as soon as you find the research you need.
Two universal truths exist regarding research.
- You’ll find more than you can use.
- You’ll still need to look for more tidbits as you write.
Regarding that second bullet: I crafted good motivations for my antagonist, but my spidey senses said they weren’t enough. Something bigger had to convince my antagonist he was doing right, regardless of what it cost or who he hurt. Moreover, the readers had to fully believe his motivations (but disagree with his actions).
Even after my full manuscript was in an agent’s hands, I trolled the web, unsure of what I still needed. But I knew I’d have an aha moment when I found it. Finally, bingo! The result was a tighter story and an entirely new Chapter 6.
When the right solution presents itself, you’ll know it. It’ll feel like finding a long-sought-for puzzle piece that falls perfectly into place.
Research is a tightrope walk. If you don’t add enough of it to your story, you’ll sound like you don’t know what you’re talking about. (Unrealistic hospital scenes are a big teeth-grinder for me.) If you infodump, you’ll sound like you’re lecturing. Both take the reader out of the story.
Treat research as seasoning—not the main course
That’s a Jerry Jenkins mantra. So, how much research is enough to add? When its details
- Orient the reader sufficiently to your setting
- Are essential for moving the plot forward
- Reveal something about your main character that can’t be revealed in other ways
- Plant the readers in the middle of what you want them to experience (sights, sounds, smells, and so on)
Ground your readers but resist the urge to add nonessential research details.
Say you score a map showing London’s sewer system in the 1850s. Do you write pages of detail about a waif making his way through miles of sewers? Everyone knows they’re filthy, dark, and full of undesirable stuff. Remember:
- Relating details can validate you as an authority—but only if the details serve your readers.
- Readers’ needs are basic: they want a reason to keep turning the page.
Maybe the sewer scene reveals the character’s deepest wound or greatest fear. If not, you likely can shorten the scene to move the character into greater trouble. For example, briefly describe him slogging through sludge and darkness for two hours, fighting smells and fending off rats until he emerges at [location]—only to have police nab him anyway.
Two final tips
Research sources matter
Find primary sources whenever you can. (Wikipedia is not one of them.) Primary sources include firsthand visits, interviews with experts, eye-witness accounts, and original documents—or as close to them as you can get from other reliable sources. Also, compare sources. If they yield conflicting information, which one carries the greatest weight of evidence? Make your call based on facts—not long-held opinions.
Track your book’s timetable
In an early draft of my book, one of my MCs secretly wanted to study in the great libraries of Alexandria. But Chapter 1 started thirty years after the libraries burned. I didn’t realize that until I double-checked my research. Back to the drawing board I went. Did the libraries burn completely? Partially? Were they rebuilt? If so, when?
IMPORTANT: Whether you set your book in the past or present, confirm that the landmarks you describe are still there!
Say you want to write a mystery set in Rouleau, Saskatchewan—the location of the Canadian comedy Corner Gas. If you set your book in 2014 or later and talked about the iconic gas station or next-door buildings from the series, you’d commit a huge faux pas. The gas station was demolished for structural reasons, and the buildings used as a diner and a local grocery burned to the ground.
Research can make your book sparkle! The amount you need is as individual as your book’s story. Err on the generous side in finding research; err on the conservative side in using it.
Lana Christian writes biblical and historical fiction. The first book in her biblical fiction series has garnered several ACFW awards. She in the throes of querying books in both genres. She’s convinced that hiking or chai tea can solve most problems—but she knows God can solve every problem. Find her on Chistianwriters.com; follow her on Twitter (@LanaCwrites) and at lanachristian.com/blog.
This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.