Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Research & Fiction--Too Much Or Just Enough?

To me, research makes a book so much more fun. If I can find something unique to the area, or about some aspect of what I'm writing, I love to include it. But there's nothing worse than reading several pages of how a paddle wheeler works or every detail of the boat's insides and outsides, unless it's important to the characters in the story. And even so, adding too much can make the story drag.

But getting some of the details right is important. So research is necessary. But how much is too much? I was reading a historical romance where the author went into the aspects of how vomit and dog feces were part of a medieval castle's decor, and the same with how unsanitary the streets were. Uhm, okay, yes, it's true. But though it's realistic, I really had a hard time with seeing the hero and heroine in a romantic light when I'm thinking of them wading through such unsanitized conditions. :)

On the other hand, some things are important. We don't have noreasters in Texas. They're called blue northers here. :) And I was just checking on snowmobiles--do they have headlights that stay on for safety sake all of the time? Yes, according to some snowmobilers from up north. We don't have them in Texas. :) So another lady on the loop that I had asked, said be sure you know what they're really called in the area where the story takes place. I had already, but this is like the blue northers we have here. In the Canadian Arctic, the snowmobiles were called skidoos. But since the hero and heroine aren't from there, they call them snowmobiles. The lady that talked to me about this said she works for an insurance company and was insuring a snow machine, but didn't know what it was. :) A snowmobile.

That's like wolves too. Timber, Mexican, Arctic wolves, the Rocky Mountain wolf are all gray wolves. Red wolves are a different species of wolf. Did you know that gray wolves are an Ice Age survivor? :)

So getting the details right can be important--my critique partner asked me if there was any daylight in the Canadian Arctic--5 hours in December on the shortest day, so yes. The details are important. I can't have a really long day at that time of year. And how cold is it? The characters are running around in the wilderness. Hmm, -19.7 C is the high, -27.7 the low. Maybe I'll pick an earlier month! Now if I go with November, I can mention the hero and heroine missing Thanksgiving, or celebrating it in Canada, but Canadians will have already celebrated their Thanksgiving the second Monday in October. So getting the facts straight is important!

As writers, what have you included in your stories that adds to the realism, and what have you left out as interesting tidbits (like my Ice Age surviving wolves) that isn't relevant or necessary to tell the story?

And as readers, what have you learned that you might not have known about while reading a fictional story?
Contest!! Guest blogging at Bitten by Books today, so check out the contest:
Terry Spear
Heart of the Wolf/Don't Cry Wolf/Betrayal of the Wolf/Allure of the Wolf


  1. I've researched lots of odd things from how hurricanes develop to the best growing conditions for avocados. Having the Internet at your fingertips makes the research go much faster than it probably did for writers in the not-so-distant past, for which I am very grateful. If I'd had to go to the library every time I had a question, most of my books would never have been written!

  2. Research is my least favorite part of writing. There. I said it. In fact, I delegate a lot of it to my husband who loves to surf the net, especially when he has a specific task to accomplish. But just because I don't love doing it, doesn't mean I give it anything less than the full amount of needed time. I tend to research things as they come up in my stories rather than in advance of writing the book. Some of the things I've had to delve into include the country music business in Nashville, alcoholism (I attended an AA meeting that was the most powerful 90 minutes of my life), pediatric oncology, the modeling business, the D.C. police department, etc.

    One thing I've discovered is sometimes you have to take what you find out about something and reset it to fit your needs. For instance, the D.C. police department is a highly complex, 3,800-member agency. If I were to show the full width and breadth of the department, it would suck the life out of my story. So I took bits and pieces of what I learned and created my own "world" of the department. Once I gave up trying to get it exactly like it is in real life, my story took off.

  3. Cheryl--I so agree about the Internet. I do so much research on that, and then also with online groups when I have a question that I can't find the answer to, that it makes it so much easier. I did some research at the local college library, though and have books on historical facts that I like to use for historical details not available on the Internet. :)

    Marie--:)I'm the researcher in the family. Everyone always asks me to look up stuff for them. :) But I so agree with you about having too much in the details. Just a flavor of it will do. :) In Allure of the Wolf, set in the Canadian Arctic and Yellowknife, I figured more men than women would live there, right? But they have the same amount of women as men. Also, they're the biggest city in the northwest territory with 20,000 people and skyscrapers! But I kept thinking how could that be? Isn't it permafrost? Wouldn't the buildings sink into the muck when it defrosted? Do they have polar bears in the Canadian Arctic?.... I had to research to find the answers!

  4. I love what both you and Marie said about taking just enough information so you don't kill the story of your books... A great point--I know sometimes things have to be explained, but when I can't remember the lead character's name because of an explanation of the town history or some obscure back story, it's too much.

    Great post to get us back to regular blogs, Terry!

  5. Thanks, Danielle! I so agree! It's like when I teach about setting, keep the character in it and make it important, then the reader feels they are in it also. Otherwise it's like a Better Homes and Garden's or a travelogue description, while the character and reader are outsiders observing the scene! Oftentimes less is more.


  6. Writing historicals has its own special research challenges. After all there are the facts, what people perceive as the facts and what works for the story, which is fiction.

    There are lots of resources and it is awfully tempting to put everything you have learned in the book, or to spend hours chasing down one little detail. And I am very lucky with my resources, as I belong to a University library as well as the internet resources.

    I have figured out a way to dump my research that helps me.

    I blog about it on my blog Then I can stick to the story part of my story, without feeling as if I wasted a bunch of time and I make new friends who are interested in what I am interested in.

    Of course, there are lots of things we don't know for sure, or myths that have grown up about an era that are constantly being busted. So you have to keep up with the field. I do that with my on line groups as best I can. And books. I have so many books on the regency.

    Then there is that fact that you know you read--somewhere-- and you need it because the whole book hinges on it. Hate that.

    Great post.

  7. I so agree, Michele! Sometimes you can have a historical detail that is little known, like in some places glass windows were available, but in the majority of instances not, then readers will think you've erred. Like for instance, most times cats were not well thought of. Hunting dogs were important. But in one medieval household, receipts showed that the noblewoman had paid to have her cat transported from one of her castles to another. :) I used it in a story!

  8. Hi all,
    I don't write but as a reader I've learned a lot from romance books. Many historical details, a few words of a bunch of different languages and lots of overseas customs just to mention a few things. I love to read stories where there's been a lot of research and I can learn something. Diana Gabaldon is one of my favorite examples of that. She incorporated so much information about life in Scotland during The Jacobite Uprising. I love it!

  9. Hey, Terry. I always like to hear your wolf info! I feel that a well-researched book is one that sounds so naturally savvy about its topic that you get a great feel for detail, and learn a little something, but don't get distracted from the plot. The vomit-covered castle, yes, that would be distracting.


  10. You know, I just remembered that the one time I tried to read a James Michener book, I got so bogged down by the pages and pages of descriptions that I stopped after only like a third. And I usually finish every book I start, I always want to know what happened to the characters. I've probably only stopped before finishing maybe 4 books in my whole life. But I just could NOT read it. :)

  11. Hey, Becky, hi! Yeah I so agree about having fun learning new stuff. And I was like you with getting bogged down in details. That was Gone with the Wind for me. I ended up skipping sections to get to the good stuff. :)

    Thanks, Christina! I keep thinking I've learned all I can about wolves, and then I find some new interesting details to add to the next story!! :) Yeah, too much can be too much! :) We all know everyone smelled bad and covered up with sweet waters to hide the odors but....
    One minister forbade his congregation from scratching during his sermon because it was so distracting. They all had lice. LOL!!! We don't need to know that in a romance. :)

  12. Braible and Terry:
    Thought I'd add an extra note here, since I agree with you both about detail-heavy books like those by Michener and the book Gone With the Wind. I have never been able, for example, to get even partially through a Tom Clancy novel (I'm sure that truly hurts him) and I also find myself skipping through great long sections of the Earth Children series (though I do love Clan of the Cave Bear very much). But these are obviously well-researched projects, to say the very least.

  13. OMG Christina I'm with you on Earth Children! I do like Clancy though. Usually. For me, it's all about what grabs my interest. Sometimes, I can hold on through the long dull parts, but not always, LOL. But shape shifters are just so interesting, I am usually fairly engaged.