Don’t put all your research into the book

For years, people have made fun of The Da Vinci Code for containing so many mini-lectures about subjects having to do with the Holy Grail. I suppose Dan Brown thought readers wouldn’t understand the plots and themes without all the background material. I thought it was distracting.

A laptop computer next to archival materialsI just finished another book by an author I like whose main character kept calling an expert about cults in an attempt to learn which ones are harmless and which ones aren’t. I don’t really think the extended information advanced the story. The information did relate to the plot, but it didn’t need to be in the book.

It’s almost as though the author became fascinated by cults and decided that the reader would also be fascinated by them. Not really. And, if so, we know how to use Google, the library, and the resource books available at Amazon and elsewhere.

When an author does this, critics often say “your research is showing.” Some critics even might suggest that the author wanted an excuse to talk about, say–cults, and wrote a novel to include what s/he had learnt about them. How much is too much. That’s a hard call to make. The detail can add ambiance while making the plot more understandable.  And yet, you don’t want readers to feel like they’re reading a research paper.

Lack ops books are famous for including a ton of information about weapons and weapons systems. Perhaps publishers and readers demand it. I like black ops novels but usually, skim over the weapons’ specifications. They don’t matter to me.

Every genre seems to have reader expectations about this kind of detail. Books about famous battles are, of course, historical novels and are expected to provide that history. Other books are, I think, better suited to using a lighter touch.


Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of “At Sea,” a Vietnam war novel set on board an aircraft carrier on which he served during that war. I included research-type information for background but kept it within the confines of what sailors in that situation would actually say in conversation. The cover picture comes from a photograph I took of the aircraft carrier’s flight deck.


How the hell did I miss that?

I’ve done a lot of research into the Florida Panhandle part of the state where I grew up to make sure I got the facts right for my Florida Folk Magic Series of novels. Mostly, I’m looking up things I remember just to check my memory. <g> What exasperates me, is stumbling onto stuff that, figuratively speaking happened right under my nose–and I missed it. Never heard of it, not on my RADAR, might as well have been going in in another part of the country.

Wikipedia Photo

Now, it’s happened again. I’m researching north Florida for another story and I find a vibrant African American community that people at levels of governement wanted to get rid of because they considered it an eyesore. They wanted the land for “better” things. “Hmm,” they said, “we’ll call our needs ‘urban renewal.'”

As I read about this, I see citations to the daily newspaper that landed in our front yard every afternoon. I see the names of the editor and the reporters from that paper all of who knew personally or was familiar with from constantly seeing their bylines.

And yet, nothing about the systemic racism disguised under various politically correct pretexts is familiar. I should mention that the community was on the other side of town and far away from the places we shopped, went to school, or saw movies. I delivered telegrams all over the city, including many African American enclaves, but never there. And yet, the debate simmered in the press and in civic and government meetings around town for about ten years.

That’s why I have to ask again, “How the hell did miss that?”

I feel like I’m researching something that happened far away rather than ten miles from my house. My parents are long gone, so I can’t ask them whether we discussed this at the dinner table. If they did, I must have zoned out inasmuch as my thinking was focused on my part time jobs, my courses, and what girl would be sitting next to me in class.

So there it is: totally unaware of a nasty little scheme that included the governor, the city council, the merchants, and the service clubs. I wish I could say that I missed all this because I was drunk.

Okay, so I have no excuse. The characters in my story are going to know about it and talk about it even if I was clueless in those days.