One of the great joys of writing is doing research on a project. If you spend any time at all around writers, eventually you’ll hear the topic of conversation swing briefly to research. Most of the time this comes in the form of strange subjects or how someone’s search history has probably landed them on some kind of “Watch list.”
And that’s cool. Researching for stories makes us all fonts of unusual knowledge. Go ahead, ask me about explosive decompression, or what would happen to you if you were exposed to the vacuum of space.
But how much is too much?
Certainly you want to be able to show that you know what you’re talking about. Getting the details right is a necessity. Additionally, you’ve put a lot of work into the research and you want to put that work in to your story without piling it on top of your reader through unending exposition or dialogue.
So you’re looking for the coolest, most piercing bits of information for your readers to chew on. You want that cool little bit of knowledge to gleam on the page. You also want the reader who happens to know something about what you’ve researched to think, “Yes, they got that right!”
But how do you know when you’ve done enough? How do you know that you’ve got it down?
The first thing you’ve got to do is remind yourself that you’re not writing a dissertation on the subject. At least not right now. Who knows, someday you might, but right now you’ve got a story to write.
For me, it comes down to how much actual time I’m spending researching vs. time spent writing. Naturally, when you’re beginning your research, you’re going to be closer to the researching end of the scale. But as you progress, you’re going to slide toward the writing side of the scale.
Sidebar: Ok, my metaphor is going to fall apart here, because the sliding scale – for me at least – implies some kind of eventual balance between researching and writing, but I don’t see it that way. There’s going to be a point where most – if not all – of what I’m doing is writing.
If, after that initial dive into the subject, I find myself spending all my writing time digging up nuggets of minutiae, session after session, I know that I’ve gone too far and that I need to reel myself back.
Certainly those nuggets are valuable. They’re like bits of Literary Gold, but they have to do more than just look shiny. They have to *Belong* in the story somewhere.
Like Worldbuilding, Research is an iceberg. The reader is only going to see the 10% above the surface but you, as the author, need to know about the 90% that the reader might only get the barest glimpse of.
And I know that sounds like a lot of work is going to waste, but it really isn’t. First, you never can tell what’s going to turn out to be useful, what’s going to help you dig yourself out of the corner that you’ve written yourself into.
Second, it will impart the sense of a deeper, more fully realized world that your characters are moving through.
Believe me, research is time well spent – as long as you don’t end up spending all of your time doing it and not, you know, writing.
Thanks for reading.
Be safe out there. Be Excellent to Each other.
I’ll see you on Thursday.
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