Research: Too Much of a Good Thing?

Details matter, especially when fans will point out an author’s mistakes. Which sources can you trust? How do you find an expert in a subject? And how much of that painstaking research should you include in your epic masterpiece? At the panel “Start Now, Research” on Thursday at 8:30PM in Hyatt Embassy EF, a group of professionals answered these questions and more. Moderator Bill Fawcett warned that research can save, kill, or stop a book. Fawcett and panelists Jack Campbell, Patrick Dugan, Anthony Francis, Charles E. Gannon, and A.J. Hartley shared their researching wisdom with the audience.

Research, Francis said, is like an iceberg—most of it should lie below the surface of your story. Gannon researched quantum mechanics for a magic system he developed, but he left the detailed physics “running beneath the hood.” He wanted clear, realistic rules for his magic, but he said the research behind it should be something that can go on your webpage, perhaps, but not in your book.

The panelists have researched some unusual things for their fiction. Campbell once needed to know the maximum range of a crossbow and the behavior of ducks when threatened. Gannon wanted details of old London. Fawcett studied old train schedules. According to Dugan, there are two things you should never get wrong: horses and guns. Some things can be surprisingly hard to find, despite having Google at our fingertips. What to do? Consult experts.

Suggestions ranged from contacting college professors and using university libraries to searching Amazon for books by experts in the field. Another idea was to go to the bottom of Wikipedia articles and delve into the sources. Google scholar is a good resource, too, as are old Time Life books. Talk to people who have done the things you want to describe. Even better, go do them yourself, if possible.

When using your research in your story, Campbell said to listen to your gut instinct. If you feel you’re going on too long about technical details, you probably are. He thinks it’s important to decide what is trivial and what is essential. What do your readers need to know at that point in the story? Hartley said to ask yourself, “What is the scene trying to do?” He likes to have his beta readers score scenes with A, B, C, or D, where the letters stand for Awesome, Bored, Confused, or Don’t Care. The important thing, he said, is not to let details cloud the emotional thrust of the story. So, go out and research, fellow writers, but use your newfound knowledge sparingly.

Author of the article

Debbie Yutko lives near Atlanta with her husband and two cats. When she isn’t gardening, rescuing homeless kittens, or cramming math formulas into teenagers’ brains, she can be found stringing words together at her computer and dreaming of adventures in far-off lands. She is a lifelong reader of Science Fiction and Fantasy and a veteran of Dragon Con, where she enjoys attending panels and working with the talented staff of the Daily Dragon.