Friday, May 21, 2010

So how much research is enough, anyway?

by Scott Rhoades

Last time, I wrote about using the right amount of detail from your research. But just how much research should you do?

The answer, as usual, is: it depends.

It depends on your story and how much realism is important to it. You can often get away with very little, just enough to provide a flavor of the time and place. The problem is, somebody who knows that place and time might read your story, and that's the reader you need to write to.

If your story is set in a real city, you want to get the streets right. You want the geography to match. When I read "A Man In Full," I was disappointed when some of the details of an area where I had lived weren't right. The story lost its credibility.

If you write about a small town and have a character stopping for gas or staying in a little motel, you should make sure the town has services and lodging.

And if you're writing about a place you know well, but in a different time, find a map and pictures. Don't assume streets have the same name they used to have, or that streets were the same size.

You can often get away with peppering the story with a few little details, just enough to show that the place is real, and to fool the reader into thinking you know what you're talking about. Again, it's the experts you need to convince, but you can often do that with a well-placed detail or two.

Or, if you like doing research like I do, use this as an excuse to dig and find out as much as you can. You still won't use it all, but you'll have a good feel for the setting and it will show. But be careful. I know how easy it is to use research as an avoidance technique. If I'm reading about my setting or looking up obscure facts that I find incredibly interesting, I can claim to be working on my story, even if I don't set down a single word. Research is fun and, these days, easy, and almost always interesting--all the things that actual work often is not.

So if you're writing something that requires a lot of research, do something to make sure you write. Set a time limit on your research, or set a word goal and make sure you meet it, even if you're researching. Maybe your goal is a little lower than it might be otherwise, but at least you're getting something down.

Usually, though, you'll know when you're overdoing it, or when you haven't done enough. Pay attention to detail, and be honest with yourself. Follow your gut. If you need to, ask somebody else, preferably Someone Who Knows.

Remember that the goal is to create a realistic setting for your reader, not to show how much you know. Like any other detail, pick and choose the little details with a big punch. You wouldn't describe every tiny detail about your character, and the same goes for the setting.

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