Know more than appears on the page.
Aaaah, research! I have written previously about the issue of accuracy (#Tip 60) - when pedantry becomes procrastination, and the compromises that we sometimes need to make to balance the need for absolute accuracy with our duty to tell a compelling story.
So let's talk about research.
Writers starting out on their career are often told "write what you know". This is perfectly sound advice. But the chances are, that as you progress in your career, you will eventually exhaust the topics on which you can write authoritatively based purely on your own knowledge and will need to do research. And this is where it is all too easy to fall into a trap.
It has been said that a good writer can sound like an expert on a subject that they know very little about. This is a little uncharitable. Many writers can become something of a genuine expert on a particular topic. They spend hours reading books and articles, watching documentaries, speaking to people and even going on research trips (sometimes joking referred to as tax-deductible holidays - there are definitely times I regret setting my DCI warren Jones series in an area within fifty miles or so of where live! Sending a DCI from Hertfordshire to Venice to solve a baffling murder, and thus requiring me to go and scout out locations in person, would be a hard sell if I am ever inspected by Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs!). I have friends who write historical fiction and they love perusing the archives of the British Library, or tramping around graveyards.
The problem is that having worked so hard to become an expert, you really want to share all that knowledge with your readers!
But do you run the risk of turning a crime caper that your readers picked-up for entertainment into a text book with a story bolted on? Where is the line between an entertaining story that a reader will finish and say "that was a cracking read and I also learnt something" and "It was all very interesting, but not a lot happened."
When I wrote Forgive Me Father, I set the story in a fictional ruined abbey. I had been planning the book for ages, so my partner and I used it as an excuse to go and visit old cathedrals and abbeys, (which we thoroughly enjoyed and I DID NOT claim on expenses, in case HMRC are reading). I bought guidebooks and spent many hours online reading about the dissolution of the monasteries and other history that I never learned at school. I made detailed plans of the abbey as it would have been in its heyday and then modified them to account for centuries of neglect.
Almost none of this research made it into the book.
And that is as it should be. A good rule of thumb with research is that the author should know far more than appears on the page! Or to paraphrase another common piece of advice "wear your research lightly." Aim to leave your readers feeling that you know your stuff, and if they felt so-inclined, they could ask you to expand at length - good writers are good bluffers!
The same is true of characters.
I've spoken previously (#Tip 39) about the need to plan characters - to keep a biography of key events to stop you contradicting yourself in later books; sometimes this can even act as a stimulus. Have a middle-aged character who's getting a bit stale, and you're not sure what to do about them? Ooh look, they turn fifty in a few months - give them a mid-life crisis! Buy them a motorbike! Embroil then in a messy affair!
But again, just because you know that about them, doesn't mean you have to tell the reader about it.
What's the best way to accomplish this balance?
The key is in the editing.
Stick everything in the first draft.
Do it! You've worked for that knowledge, and you never know what might be important. Get it out of your system. The first draft of Forgive Me Father was full of rambling diversions about medieval monastery life. And I dare say that taken in isolation, some of that stuff was pretty well-written. But it didn't add to the story. So it gradually disappeared over subsequent drafts.
Then kill your darlings.
Some of my earliest blog posts (#Tips 27, 28, 29, 30) were about editing out stuff that you might love, but which the book doesn't need. Remember, to justify its place, something has to either advance the story, set up future stories or add essential details. Look at your book with a critical - even brutal - eye. Keeping something in a book just because it took a lot of effort to write, because you like it or because you spent ages finding it out, is not justification enough to keep it in. Console yourself with the fact that a decent editor will tell you to chop it anyway, you've just saved everyone time and effort by wielding the scissors yourself!
Know your audience.
Tom Clancy was (in)famous for his meticulous attention to detail. His thrillers are sprawling, geopolitical behemoths with sometimes eye-watering amounts of detail about weapons and submarines etc. Since he died, a series of writers have continued his series, and have maintained this exacting style. Why? Because his loyal readership expect it. I have read almost all of the recent books, and will happily set aside a couple of weeks to work my way through one. They even come with maps and appendices... but these are the only books I would tolerate that from these days. Give the same story to most modern thriller writers and they'd tell it in half the space. But that's fine, for Tom Clancy. He is the exception to the rule.
Beware the information dump.
Sometimes, the need to impart a lot of information to the reader is unavoidable. One of my favourite recent reads was Rachel Lynch's Blood Rites. The story centres around poorly understood ancient religions and cults. She could not assume any prior knowledge on behalf of her readers. The skill she demonstrated was the way that the information was trickled out in easy to digest chunks, as and when it was needed. I came away from the book having learned a lot of new information, in an enjoyable fashion, but never felt bludgeoned by it. It will come as no surprise that Rachel is a former teacher.
Avoid too much exposition.
This is related to the previous point, and I am going to write a separate article about it. Suffice to say that the old maxim "show don't tell" is worth repeating and just because you impart the knowledge through dialogue, doesn't mean you can ignore all of the above!
A final thought.
As with anything to do with writing, you can't please everyone. I've had reviews where readers have criticised my books for too much detail, and others that feel my procedural accuracy is a strength of the series.
All I can recommend is to read other books similar in style to the one you want to write to get a feel for the balance. Ask readers experienced in the genre to look your manuscript over and have an honest dialogue with them. Ask them to tell you if they think some of the research is overdone, or even if they feel a bit more is needed.
And as always, remember it is YOUR story.
Where do you stand on research? Do you like to come away feeling that you could write a short essay on a new topic, or would you rather the author just got on with the story?
As always, feel free to comment here or on social media.
Until next time, all the best,
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Paul Gitsham is the writer of the DCI Warren Jones series.
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