Research: How Much is Enough?
© Marta Stephens 2008 all rights reserved
Several years ago, while I sat in a college writing class, the professor instructed us to “write what you know.” What student/writer hasn’t heard those dreaded words? I remember thinking if that were the case, I would never write.
I have what most would consider a normal life; married, raised two great children, went to college, have hobbies, and have been gainfully employed all my adult life. But this could be anyone’s life. If I stuck to the “rule,” I’d have nothing to write about -- nothing anyone would want to read, that is. However, I do have a passion for a good suspenseful mystery, the page-turner that yanks you to the edge of your seat, grabs you by the throat, and leaves you breathlessly begging for more. “Write what you know.” The words popped into my head again as I typed the opening paragraph of SILENCED CRY.
The reality is, most fiction writers I know have never been involved in the type of situations they force their characters into (murder, theft, espionage, smuggling, kidnappings, imprisonment, etc.). So where does a writer start? Research. Simply put, he or she owes it to his or her readers to create a story that is absolutely believable.
The question is how much research is needed? The answer: As much as it takes to make the story plausible. The problem is that research is a twosided sword. Not enough and the story will lack the essential truths needed to make it real. Too much and the story will sag with excess information.
A while back I read a book that held me until the last three chapters. After that, the bottom fell out of the plot when the suspended disbelief disintegrated into a convenient ending. The story wasn’t a police procedural, but a police investigation was implied. Yet critical evidence at the scene was overlooked which indicated to me the author had not thoroughly researched crime scene procedurals. Not that an entire chapter should have been dedicated to the investigation performed at the scene, but the oversight was glaring. A crucial piece of evidence that any crime scene investigator would have immediately bagged from a murder scene was never mentioned by the police. The omission felt like a ploy to fool the reader into thinking the guilty was innocent. It worked, but the tactic backfired because it also left this reader knowing the author hadn’t done his homework and rushed the ending. The real crime was that he told the reader who was guilty without giving the reader an opportunity to see the evidence mound and draw his or her own conclusions. Isn’t that what mysteries are all about? A gradual build up of suspense, peppered with clues and followed by a WOW ending?
This is an example where a bit more research, the addition of a few words could have changed the complexity of the entire novel and would have made me love the book.
Research doesn’t mean the writer must force every bit of information he or she discovers into the story. That’s what is commonly referred to as “information dump.” Only a portion of the research, that which gives a scene meaning, should be used. This means that an author may read pages of text from several sources to ensure the accuracy of a single sentence to give the work a flavor of authenticity -- make it believable.