Is deep research a writer’s peril?

RESEARCH IS GOOD, RIGHT?

Writers like me spend a LOT of time doing research to set a novel in time and place, to select the best time of day for a scene, to subtly (we hope) slip a reader into an alternate reality where we are going to tell a story that should keep the reader turning pages far into the night.

To create a world that the characters and the reader can explore for a certain distance off the main story path, we have to know a LOT more than the reader, or the shallowness of the setting will show through the words somewhere, and the lack of fit among all the pieces set down as background will leak through into the reader’s subconscious, taking the reader out of the story to wonder ‘if that could even happen.’

NETHERWORLD has several movies in it, and my current section is the shooting of a movie based on certain parts and unanswered questions in the life of the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, author of what is commonly known as ‘the Alice books’:

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and

Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.

The amount of ‘information’ out there on this popular author (and mathematics teacher at Christ College, Oxford) is staggering.

There are entire societies dedicated to his books, his life, his work.

He is a well-known historical character, and many others have staked their reputations on writing about him.

What’s my motivation?

Even non-actors have seen an actor in a movie ask the director, What’s my motivation?

Because HOW you say something, in fact, how you use your whole body to say something, depends on WHY you say it, the motivation that gives the lines written by the scriptwriter a connection to the whole world of the movie.

Good actors go much deeper than that to create their own version of a character, to use their time on screen to make us believe the character so deeply that it’s a shock to see that actor – in a different role! “But he was so good at…” is a common reaction.

A good movie has more

The motivation for making that movie at all, for expending what can be millions of dollars on a particular story, for bringing that story to a fully-realized version that may some day be an immersive 3-D experience for viewers who participate in the movie as a character (we’re getting close with virtual reality – it’s only a matter of sufficient processing power in computers), depends on whether the investment can be justified, made to pay because there are so many people, worldwide, who want to watch (and later, to be).

Go on about how the good stories are distillations of an internally consistent process that requires knowing all the possibilities – and choosing the ‘best’ for the gut of the movie. And the actors work hard at figuring out why.

Which brings me full circle to research

And a character of mine, an actor, doing the research for a role he will play, but deep research, research that goes beyond reading the materials handed to him, or discovered in the easy-to-get-to online sources such as Wikipedia (a huge resource I support every year).

But the characters all come from me, so if they need to do research, guess who’s doing it for them?

It takes time.

It takes time away from the writing. That’s the dangerous part.

It is real research, research into primary sources such as biographies, sometimes histories.

And it is research that has to be stored, savored, coordinated (all those sources don’t agree with each other), until it is used to produce action in the character in the novel – and writing of that action by the author of the character in the novel.

Well, I have been down the rabbit hole again. Found all kinds of fascinating things, some of which I did not dig deep enough to find when I set this section of NETHERWORLD up, years ago. The slow brain makes it even slower.

And now, darn it, I have to figure out how to use all that research to give the character his motivation, and the readers something that keeps them turning pages late into the night.

My kind of author works hard for the readers she craves.

We aim to please.

***********

27 thoughts on “Is deep research a writer’s peril?

  1. Lloyd Lofthouse

    What makes it into the story is often the tip of the research iceberg. How can an author select the details he/she wants to use without knowing a whole lot more? The more we know, the better that little bit we use turns out to be, the chocolate frosting on a massive cake.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      I love frosting!

      If you are using more of your research in your FICTION than half the percentage of an iceberg that sits above the waterline, you are doing infoclumps – stop it right now!

      The details are for verisimilitude, to assuage the fears of your readers that you don’t know what you’re talking about.

      Pick a couple of details – let the rest go.

      Or write non-fiction.

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  2. marianallen

    Oh, lord, yes, deep research is the enemy of putting words on the page! For THE WOLVES OF PORT NOVO, I had true priests (humble and poor) and reiver priests (ostentatious and rich), and I researched natural dyes and where what kinds of gemstones might be found so that the priests were dressed and adorned appropriately depending on where they lived. I could have spent years wandering happily in that research. 🙂

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Writers do – consider Tolkien!

      The creativity is amazing, but we don’t always see it from the reader side IF it’s well done. It just makes a particular writer’s work so much richer.

      In Tolkien’s case, his creativity was built on by the movie-makers – but they didn’t invent the concepts. And yet – reading about their work is almost as fascinating.

      I’m glad you enjoy it. I’m starting to think it’s the mark of a real writer to get lost down rabbit holes.

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  3. Lee McAulay

    Another writer of historical-based fiction here; I end up with stories because my deep research of one subject has thrown up a set of coincidences which could be something more – then the research continues for supporting facts and coincidences until I’m convinced! Good job I write speculative fiction, where What-Ifs can include deep-sea monsters and obscure lore…

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      You are right. It’s harder to write POSSIBLE fiction – but you still want your readers to be able to suspend disbelief enough to enter the storyland and live the lives there.

      I find too many stories in which I don’t care – which means I don’t keep reading. The good writers can make you change. By giving you a reason to change.

      Welcome.

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  4. joey

    A lot of my work is research and I love it. I have done and could do a lot of jobs, but I really do love working in an environment that both promotes questioning and rewards curiosity. One of the things I enjoy most about your blog is that you do not dumb things down. People either get it or it goes over their heads, but you stay true to yourself. I think that’s crucial to cultivating the right audience for any writing project.
    I have gone down some rabbit holes in research, most of it has been personally or professionally satisfying, but there are times, like in writing, when I feel I’ve hit a wall and it’s best to let it lie a while and maybe refresh my brain about the goal.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      There are writers for all readers – I have to write for people who might like my novels and stories – I think it works best that they get who I really am.

      Plus it takes a lot of energy to punch in a different weight class – and I have none to spare!

      The goal won’t leave me alone – and that’s fine – because no one else seems to be writing the book I want to read, for whatever reason, and I like it.

      I’m not unhappy with my writing – I’m unhappy with not being able to help my brain function better, no matter how hard I try – and the professionals don’t seem to be interested.

      We may, eventually, get SOME help from those researchers attracted to long-covid – but I’m not holding my breath. There will be money there, and careers, but if they weren’t started already on similar illnesses, it’s going to take those researchers a while to get up to speed and produce anything.

      Meanwhile I have a life to live. It’s a good thing I haven’t been holding my breath for all these decades already!

      I’m sorry you’ve hit a wall – my usual way to restart is to write about WHY I have hit a wall and some days even that doesn’t work.

      There’s always tomorrow – I’ll try again. Stubborn that way.

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  5. Widdershins

    Wikipedia gets a yearly, more if I can manage it, donation from me too. They earn it ten times over. 🙂 … ah, research rabbit-holes – ask me anything about the history of fluorescent tubing! 😀

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  6. acflory

    Um, yes, research is dangerous…but soooo satisfying! The nice thing about your research, is that it will slot into however much, or little, the reader already knows about Lewis Caroll. The only problem might be if the reader doesn’t /like/ any of the Alice books, but I suspect that kind of reader would be rare. Have fun. 🙂

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      There is much about the man, little about the actual books’ content – some old questions, some new. Light touch – it’s background to something else.

      Just working out how much is NECESSARY.

      The usual problem with research is the desire to include too much of it on the grounds of it being ‘interesting.’ I’ve quashed that desire by having a standard that says it has to be necessary, or it doesn’t go in.

      That doesn’t mean I haven’t spent my time enjoying my research! Just that I chose to do that; the reader, not so much.

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        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Make sure they die a tragic and fascinating death. That’s what you invented them for.

          Being too nice to your characters is a writer’s dilemma.

          But there has to be a PURPOSE to their lives (invented) and, where necessary, their deaths.

          Liked by 1 person

        2. acflory

          Ahem. Yes. So far they’ve had two electrocutions and one drowning in biofluid. Oh! and the one who was murdered by the common cold. 😉

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  7. Will Once

    I have a theory about research … sometimes it is a positive and sometimes it is a double negative.

    The positive side comes when I read something that takes me into the world of the story. This might be a detail which rings true and makes me trust the author. The more I trust the author, the less I notice the author and the more I trust in the story.

    The double negative is when the author gives me something that feels wrong. Out of place. Unrealistic. Poorly researched. Then I notice the author either trying too hard or not trying hard enough. It jolts me out of the story.

    A case in point. The marvelous Alan Rickman in Robin Hood Prince of Thieves says to one young lady “You. My room. 10.30”. Then he turns to a second lady and says. “You. 10.45. And bring a friend.”

    Okay, so it’s a funny line. Alan Rickman delivers it with a delicious greasy leer. But we’re not thinking about that, are we? We are wondering if people talked about 10.30 and 10.45 in the days before watches, let alone digital watches.

    Good research is as much about taking howlers out as it is about putting good details in.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Robin Hood Prince of Thieves was a lot of missed opportunities. Just starting with Kevin Costner… Too much tongue-in-cheek for me, but it brought in $390 million, according to Wikipedia. He CAN play things straight – Waterworld had some good stuff in it – but is not one of my favorites, though Morgan Freeman ALWAYS satisfies.

      I aim for no howlers – and am constantly asking myself if something was possible in 2005/2006. This is one of the perils of taking too long to write. The original story came to me in 2000, and was going to be set then – but I was nowhere near ready to begin, and had to do a complete reorganization in 2007.

      Your point – achieving trust in the story – is critical for me. I build up reader trust – and I know exactly where I have presumed on that trust (only a couple of spots in the whole trilogy), and I spend the rest of the time setting myself up as trustworthy so those couple of times will not be noticed!

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