When does the research for a novel get out of hand?

If you’ve been reading my posts for a long time, you know I take issue with fiction that spends a lot of time teaching its readers something rather than telling a story. In different ways, The Da Vinci Code and the Celestine Prophecy are examples of this. Actually, I enjoyed both books–probably because I liked the messages. I’ve also like Katherine Neville, whose 1988 novel The Eight more or less introduced the heavy-on-teaching/mystery-thriller/ancient-secrets approach to fiction that Brown, Raymond Khoury, and others have used  in a fair number of other novels. When one finds the secret and/or the message fascinating, it’s easy to forgive the fact that these novels have too much lecturing in them.

researchFor the rest of us, our research gets out of hand when we become so fascinated by it, that we left it take over our fiction–presumably, this happens when think our readers will love that research as much as we do or when we’re just sloppy.

Before I write, my research always gets out of hand, as others see it, because I insist on knowing a lot more about the novels’ subject matter, location, and characters than I can possibly use. My conjure-related, blues-related, and other historical notes for Conjure Woman’s Cat and Eulalie and Washerwoman are longer than the combined word count of the books.

I do this because I want to internalize the information so that whenever and wherever it’s needed in the story, it naturally appears there without seeming to intrude. In “real life,” most of us act in accordance with our views and beliefs without the need for a Dan Brown-style lecture in the middle of an event that explains to others who are there why we’re doing what we’re doing.  I do too much research because I want the result of it to be a correct novel that doesn’t have to tell the readers why it’s a correct novel insofar as, say, conjure or the blues or the Florida piney woods go.

One never wants a reviewer to say “the research shows” about a book. When it does, it’s gotten out of hand.

One thing one learns when writing nonfiction is that the more often one quotes other people (other than in research papers where you have to do it), the less one understands the material. If you understand it, you don’t need to tell it through others’ words. I believe the same thing about research and the novel. If you have to keep pasting in globs of research, then you probably don’t understand your own subjects, locations and characters well enough to just tell the story.

Yes, it’s easy to say a little too much here and a little too much there and only realize later (probably after the book has been printed and it’s too late to change it) that while correct facts and ambiance are important, they need to support the story and the story’s wont to be continuously moving forward. Right now, my research for an upcoming novel is almost out of hand because I’m fascinated with the subject matter and could just as well keep reading about it if I don’t admit that–past a point–I’m delaying writing the book rather than creatively getting ready to write the book.

So, it’s almost time to stop and to let what I’ve learned become a part of me. Only then will it help the story. Just a few more pages to read, and then I’ll start writing, oh and just quickly check another book or two, yeah, right, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.


To learn more about my two conjure novels, read my spooky web page. 



4 thoughts on “When does the research for a novel get out of hand?

  1. A lifetime’s study of the things we either weren’t taught or were lied to about formed the base for my first four novels. I added a bit too much information, but you can’t have a pedantic character who remains silent. Lately, my books and ideas for books tend to be based on real life experience/research, and for sure, I have done too much research.

  2. Like you, I’m all for layering in as much underlying truth in my fiction as possible.
    It makes the story much more believable.

    But I get carried away too. Mostly because I love research. I never met a fun fact I didn’t like!

    My editor is not of the same opinion. If a scene or paragraph doesn’t move the story forward, she axes it. Her rule of thumb is yes, research your book, but you should only be actually telling the reader less than a tenth of the information you find. The rest, like you say, is just background to help give the right feel to the scenes and characters.

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