A couple of years ago my muse hit me over the head with an idea for a historical fantasy—a cool twist on actual events of the Elizabethan age involving Francis Drake and Dr. John Dee. I figured it would make a good short novel, but it was going to require a lot of research. So I dug in and spent many months reading every book I could find on the historical figures and events surrounding my fictional scenario. And I enjoyed learning a bunch of fun details about sixteenth century maritime exploration, courtly intrigue, and Renaissance magic.
There were so many real events that were weirder than fiction, so many cool fragments of the real world that I could wrap my story around. But the deeper I went into the research, the harder it was to get my pen moving on actual narrative fiction. The background journal filled up, but the opening chapters just couldn’t find their feet.
Too much research can kill a story. The more I learned about how people actually spoke in Elizabethan England, the less authentic my user-friendly dialogue felt. But to write it true to history would require readers to slog through the story more as translators than as people along for an adventure.
Knowledge, of certain kinds, can be corrosive to a writer’s confidence and voice. I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t writing for historians, I was writing to entertain readers of fiction.
But it’s tempting to try to incorporate all that you’ve learned from research, thinking, “Ah, anyone who knows the real story, or anyone who looks it up, will be impressed by that bit.” Who? Maybe one person? And you’re going to burden your story with excess baggage for that?
I also found that knowing too much about what really happened historically, kind of took the creative wind out of my sails. I’m the type of writer who likes to discover a story as I work through the first draft. I don’t outline too much, and ironically, here I was trying to discover a story about discovery, when most of the major events were already known to me. Boring.
But possibly the biggest problem with immersing yourself in research is that it can be a great excuse to delay the actual writing. Research tends to lead to more research, not to sitting down and imagining things. It can be about as productive as cleaning up your computer or shopping for an inspiring journal before starting that novel sometime next week.
After working on some other stories, I’m finally revisiting and writing that historical idea. This time I’m plundering my notes with a less ambitious project in the crosshairs: a short story for a historical themed horror anthology. The publisher’s word limit (and deadline) is keeping me focused on telling the damned story with just enough detail to give it veracity. It’s fun again.
To recap, the perils of too much research seem to be:
1. Undermined confidence
3. Misplaced thrill of discovery
Everyone knows the peril of not enough research: you come off looking lazy and stupid.
Of course you have to know what you’re talking about. That’s why “write what you know” is such a popular piece of advice. When I wrote a novel that takes place in a recording studio, I didn’t need research because I had worked in a studio. The details were at my fingertips. But if you’re writing something you don’t know from experience, it might be best to save the larger part of the research for after the first draft. Once you know your story, you will also have a better idea of what you need to learn to get it right.
Last night I read my son one of his favorite books. He’s three, so it was a picture book called FIREHOUSE!, in which some dogs drive a firetruck. This time he noticed that the dogs were wearing their black and yellow fire-resistant overcoats while rescuing a cat from a tree. He said, “Firemen don’t wear their jackets for a rescue, only for a fire.” His uncle is a fireman, and he watches a lot of Emergency reruns, so I don’t know, but he’s probably right.
“Well, the person who painted this book thought they would look cool in their fire jackets,” I said.
“Who painted this book?”
I checked the cover. “Mark Teague.”
“I want someone else to paint this book,” he said, and tried to scratch the jacket off of the page.
Wow, dude, that’s harsh. He likes the concept. He just wants to see it done by someone who’s fucking competent. And I’m thinking, are you going to grow up to be a fireman or a literary agent?
I told him, “I think Mark did a good job. It’s one of your favorite books. And you know, sometimes you can enjoy a book and still think it has problems.”
Nevermind that dogs are driving a truck and climbing a ladder. Those things he can accept, because he knows they’re what make it fun. But he expects the author to get the details right. It reminded me that you can never please everyone, but you shouldn’t underestimate readers, either. Not even when they’re too young to read.