The Rabbit Hole of Research

When I started writing romance my genre of choice was historical. I always felt like I was born in the wrong time period and penning the historical novel with an ahead-of-her-time heroine really appealed to me. One of my favorite romances of my teen years was about a lord of the manor by day, pirate by night hero and the rebellious lady who went toe-to-toe with our Lord Pirate on her own ship, with her own crew. She also had a sword, but that’s probably a discussion best left to Freud and Oedipus. But I digress…

My second novel was, of course, about a pirate…errr…privateer (as piracy was illegal) and a missionary woman he rescues from slave traders. During the long voyage home he insists they get married to preserve her reputation. She refuses. She just escaped being sold on the auction block, she argues. Not only was she a tainted dove in the eyes of proper society regardless of her married state, she had no intention of trading one form of slavery for another.

This was the pre-internet days and I found and bought every research book I could find on piracy, ships, missionaries, ocean voyages, life in nineteenth century England, slave traders…do you see where I’m going? I owned a lot of research books. I still do, much to my daughter’s chagrin. They are the one thing I will not toss while I downsize my life. For one, the reading was absolutely fascinating. But most of all I remember being enthralled by the texture the author’s research provided to the narrative. While tucked under the covers, reading by the flashlight long past my bedtime, I could hear the creak of the ship as it crested the waves, smell the dank air below deck, or feel the pounding of the horse’s hooves as my hero and heroine rod over the lush English landscape, the sun warming their skin on a rare sunny day.

There was a television show a few years ago on PBS where volunteers became pilgrims and “crossed the ocean” (aka the local river) to an isolated location dubbed “the new world.” For several months they lived as their period counterparts would have lived. Roles were divvied up by the luck of the draw, from the upper class lords and ladies to indentured servants. Only the tools, foods or resources available to the actual pilgrims were provided. They had a small supply of dried food but they were expected to grow crops or hunt if they wanted to eat more than pea soup. Add in that the task of clearing lumber to sell to those who sponsored the trip to pay back the cost of the voyage, build a community, survive injury, disease and the possibility of hostile natives…it was a herculean task that left me on the edge of the seat. And I only watched safe and warm in my living room.

But the concept of living research kept me riveted to the TV. Today, with the world literally at our fingertips thanks to the internet, it’s possible not only to read about life in another century, but to jump in with both feet. You can peruse texts not previously available to a money-poor writer or input the location on Mapquest or Google Maps and actually see the landscape. You might also find a project like the pilgrims. I’ve seen others that will allow you to experience everything from the life of a cowboy to the apocalypse (zombies optional).

The hard thing about all this knowledge is deciding what to include and…gasp…what not to leave out. Sadly, most of it will get left out of the narrative of your book. You want to flavor the story, not overwhelm it. It’s like a ghost pepper – the right amount makes you tingle. Too much can leave you writing on the floor. While may writers won’t believe me when I say this, the research really is for the author. It gives you an authority that comes through in subtle ways. It’es tempting to share every detail about the exploding star’s impact on gravitational forces or the roasted quail with parsnip pudding but in truth, your readers will likely skim over long paragraphs of detail. So use this to your advantage.

Use it as flavor. But flavor comes in dashes, so throw in a few words with a dialogue tag or use an interesting piece of your setting as a prop. Consider these snippets.

The boars-head knocker, rusted from exposure to the damp London air, hung crookedly against a loose brass plate on the work oak door.

Henrietta pounded the boars-head knocker once against the brass plate, startled when the rusted thing came off in her gloved hand. “Well I was warned,” she said, thinking of the note tucked in her reticule. The brass plate clattered against the cobblestones a second later. She eyed the worn oak door skeptically and took a step back into the damp London air.

There’s nothing wrong with either option (albeit I wrote them both so I’m a bit biased) but I do prefer the second presentation because it’s more active. My character is doing something, not just looking at the door, observing a rusted door knocker. I’ve given you the same information, shared the same research. And it’s more words!!

Give ’em some attitude. Research also impacts how your characters react to situations. The tained dove in my second book was not embarrassed by the possibility of judgment because she knew she’d done nothing wrong. She’d been raised with people who gauged morality differently that London’s upper class. Rather than describe the morality of either society, I can present that through actions. For example:

Hope smiled at the open disdain from the haughty woman sneering down the length of her considerable nose, and presented the small gift secreted behind her back. “It’s a black opal,” she explained. “The people of our village would give them to other tribes.” She omitted the fact the gift was to compensate the opposing tribe after they’d been conquered in battle.

At least that’s how I would re-write the scene hiding under my bed. There are long paragraphs of purple prose in that book that should never see the light of day, much less an editor’s desk.

Less is more. Backstory is as much research as knowing the details of the subway system of a major city. But I don’t need to tell my reader about every turn and turnstile as the character travels from Incheon to Seoul via the subway (a two-and-a-half hour journey, btw). “Hours in the labyrinthine subway tunnels finally poured our weary travel into the heart of Seoul.” Readers come with their own backstory and can fill in the blanks when you give them hints of motivation or a situation. It can make the story more personal. How many of us were lucky enough to escape our teen years without a story of heartache?  Use that memory.

Seeing him walk away now was no less painful for Eve as the first time he’d left her, standing alone at her own sweet sixteen party.

Even if that particular moment didn’t happen to you, we’ve all had similar moments of being left behind. I don’t need to know why dude left Eve or what dress she was wearing or the song playing in the background. A great question to ask yourself is what do they need to know right now? There’s time later to fill in the details on the dress or song or reason if and when it’s important to the story.

Happy writing!!

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The Rabbit Hole of Research

  1. This is such a good post. A great reminder about the power of information dump to overwhelm what might be a great story. Like you, I love the research part of my writing and I have to be careful not to smack my readers over the head with too much stuff.

  2. I’ve started leaving comments and highlighting things in manuscripts I need research on, etc. That way I can press forward in a scene, but I’m not stuck there, doing a google search…

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