Book writing – how far does author research need to go?

It is self-evident that the more an author puts into a story, the more a reader will get out of it. Solid research will underpin the credibility of what lies between the covers of a book but and help build the trust of readers.

Research leads to writer-confidence in relating key information or capturing the atmosphere of a setting. More than that, it informs the reader by adding to his/her knowledge bank (no matter how subliminal). To do it properly, however, requires a balanced approach and an eye for what is important as opposed to what can be little more than window dressing.

I was once told that just because you know the detail of something doesn’t mean you have to bore the pants of everyone by telling them how clever you are. It’s all very well, for example, that you may know the precise calibrations and mathematic formulae for manufacturing a car engine but do your readers really want to spend time reading about it in a romantic novel, or, for that matter, any other kind of novel? SEE MORE AT:

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It really depends on the book and the author's goal, doesn't it? I just finished reading a terrific book called, "River City," that's crammed with research - it starts with a murder in Montreal in 1955 then goes back to 1535 and covers the history of Quebec up until 1972. Now, I'll be honest, when I started reading I thought it was too self-indulgent on the author's part but once I realized he really was writing what interested him, exactly the book he wanted to write and wasn't going for commercial success (the book is 890 pages) I just decided to go along for the ride and enjoy it, and I did.

As I get older I appreciate these kinds of very personal books a lot more than attempts at bestsellerdom which now seem to me to be someone trying to replicate a Big Mac.

So, yeah, lots of research.

Thanks John. This adds greatly to the debate.

It's the obvious answer but I think the answer is "just the amount needed." Research what you need to research. Sometimes too much research makes a book bland and textbookish. Too little research leads to unbelievability and a feeling of phoniness. Determining exactly how much you need is obviously not an easy step. It's probably a book by book thing. Some books won't need much research and others will need lots. I don't think there's any concrete amount that will apply to all books. It's an author judgment issue like anything else in the book.

"How much research" is hard to define. I don't do nearly as much as I used to, but a lot of that is because I did so much in the past, I know pretty well how the world in which my stories take place works. I stay current, and look up specifics, but don't spend a lot of time before starting, unless something in the story revolves around something i don't know a lot about. (For example, I wanted to have a psychiatrist plant some memories in a story, and did a lot of research to see how well that might work, if it could be done at all.)

The trick lies in how the research is used. Citing arcane facts gets old in a hurry. The best use of most research lies between the lines, letting the reader fall into a fictional dream through your command of the facts and situation you use and create. Creating an atmosphere where they can believe (and accept) is much better than trying to convince them.

Couldn't agree more Dana King.

Yes.  I get bored easily.  It's really how much you leave out.  I write about crime in eleventh century Japan.  You can imagine the amount of research.  But you do it so that you don't get things wrong, not because it needs to be in the book.  Very, very little gets into the book.

I agree with Dana and Jonathan. Unfortunately, it's not the research that's hard to do, it's the writing that keeps the reader in the story while only bringing in the research to add credibility that's so difficult. I don't write romance, but was recently at a Romance Writers of America meeting where their keynote speaker talked about writing descriptions from the character's point of view. Research seems to be much the same way. If you can have the character do the research and make discoveries that are flavored with his/her POV, the research comes out very differently.

'Researchitus' can become a problem where you've found out so much, you feel obliged to put it all in. I think the 'iceberg' approach is better. Do the research but 9/10ths is underneath the surface. Although not a crime novel, my most recent book'Authorpeneurship;the Business of Creativity' was based on 2 years of participant- observation of learning how to use new digital formats to help brand as an author-small business. And I did pick up a clue for a crime novel, of having a different autograph for signing books and using credit cards!

I like doing research and often find myself Googling this and that when I really ought to be writing my next scene instead.  I do a fair amount of site research, too--I live several hundred miles from the town where my series is set, so I try to get out there and have a look as I'm drafting a new book, so I can be reasonably current on what's new and different, the gossip, the latest celebrity sightings, the latest scandals, etc.  I was able to get a grant from my university to hire a student researcher for my new book--he came up with some GREAT details that really helped to flesh out the story in spots.  For me, it's the unexpected, peripheral stuff you find when you set out to research some boring detail that usually makes it into the book. 

I' ve just published The Cambodian Book of the Dead, the first in series of detective novels set in different Asian countries. I know Cambodia well and have worked there as a journalist for the past decade. I totally agree with some of the postings here that it is essential to know your subject inside out, but not to convey all this information to the reader.

It's like an iceberg, the tip is for the reader, the rest in for the writer to build his story on. I plan to set each of the next books in my series of so called Maier mysteries in different Asian countries and will pick only the ones I know intimately well. Even so, I will do some significant historical research into each country as I write the next installment and if possible revisit the country while writing the book, although my Maier novels are set more than a decade ago.

I think William Burroughs once said that writing fiction is like sailing a ship. It pays to keep the coast in view for less experienced writers. The bottom line is: Write what you know about. With more experience, some research can be replaced by general know how but of course the factual nuts and bolts still have to be found and digested.

All crime fictions needs research.  Why, well that's my first rule of writing: Readers are smarter than we are! They will find logical and factual errors in a flash.

Once I had a scene set in a cafe at Alki Beach in Seattle.  I had my main character looking at the Seattle skyline and waxing philosophical about something.  My wife read the scene and said that he can't see the skyline from there.  I said, of course you can.  Then I drove over there and she was right.  I changed the scene.  This is what I call little research.  It's getting the little points right.

I had a guy tell me that he owned a 1983 Corvette.  He didn't because Chevrolet didn't make a 1983 model.  I read a review of a mystery that tore the writer up because the main character flipped the safety on a Glock. Check Here! Glocks don't have an on/off manual safety.  There is probably hundreds of other examples of this kind of factual error.  And these errors  can destroy the joy of reading and sales as well.

Fortunately, research is getting easier.  In a recent short story, I needed to set a scene in Key West.  Google maps let me walk right down Duval Street.  Saved me a lot in air fair and still get my details right.

I do like to include bits and pieces of Seattle lore in my novels, but only bits and pieces because I don't want to destroy the narrative.  By the way, Dana is right in his comments.

I do want to disagree with the write what you know rule.  Few crime writers are experienced in law enforcement, but we can find out about procedure, etc.  And Science Fiction wouldn't exist at all.  Use your own emotions and knowledge of people, then project them into a situation you can research.  (Note: The Hunt for Red October) Check Here!

Oh my.  I researched my response to this thread.  I guess I'm more anal about this than I thought.

Totally agree with Brian Hoffman. Research is essential. But research does not need to be limited to googling how guns work - though of course it is essential to get that right. recently a kind reader of one of my manuscripts pointed out that I shot an old man in the arm with a revolver. I checked subsequently how much damage a revolver will do to a 70 year old. I needed the character to continue to function for another couple of chapters, so I scrapped the scene before publication. But beyond these nuts and bolts issues, there is a wider context to consider.

To make a story work, it does help if the writer has some knowledge about his subject. A crime writer who has never had any contact with police work will be hard pressed to come up with a decent, believable story featuring police procedures. Check out bestselling crime writers and they will, for the most part and depending on their particular field, thankfully acknowledge spending time with cops, coroners, forensics guys or in courts. There are exceptions of course. The formerly hugely popular German adventure writer Karl May wrote countless Westerns and had never been to America. But I think writers like May are something of an exception. I contend that first hand observation - staying close to the coast so to speak - is unbeatable.

Sci-Fi writers are no exception - they base their ideas on stuff that floats around them - from dystopians like George Orwell who reflected on very real totalitarian systems in his fiction (after experiencing British colonialsm first hand AND reading about the Soviet Union to writers like Larry Niven who utilizes very common ideas about human relationships, mixed with researched and well established adventure cliches and hard science to create futuristic visions.

I don't mean to start an argument here. My bottom line: Fashion your plot towards something you have lived, spent time with, experienced, or arrange time with the kind of people you write about. It will make for a better book.


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