Questionable: How Much Research?

Raquel asked:

Is there such a thing as too much research for a story?


It’s too much research when you feel that you must know absolutely everything about every aspect of your story, and because of that, you never actually work on writing the story.

It’s too much research when you feel you can’t write a scene because you don’t know enough about some of the details in it. Write the scene and fix the details later.

It’s too much research when you feel obliged to put all of the stuff you learned into the story itself because you worked hard on that, damn it, and somebody should notice.

In short, it’s too much research when it screws up writing the story.

How do you avoid too much research?

Get a general knowledge of whatever it is you’re researching. GENERAL knowledge, not in depth, enough to get started writing.


Encounter a place you need to know something. Make a note and keep writing.

When you’re done writing for the day, look up whatever it was that you needed to know. Make a note and fix it when you sit down to write the next day.

If you love what you’re researching, consider non-fiction. The truth is, 99% of what you know about your subject is not only unnecessary to your story, putting it in there will hurt the story. So unless you really want to be an expert on rat-catching in the eighteenth century, get a general knowledge of how rat-catching works and then go write your book.

28 thoughts on “Questionable: How Much Research?

  1. I tend to get distracted by research during the writing process (once you open up the Internet, oy), but I also twitch if I need a piece of info right that minute. Sometimes I just put in the place marker, and some times I allow myself to zip online, fine the info, and then run away. Mostly it depends on how well the words are flowing at the moment.

    Also, I hate doing research, so I don’t find it as tempting a distraction as some, so I suppose that helps.

  2. I remember once being asked to replace a writer on a work-for-hire project because that author’s entire novella was being held up by research. She couldn’t proceed on the story wihtout knowing exactly what sort of skirt or undergarments her character would be wearing, exactly what the accurate historical name was of the color the character would be wearing, etc.

    Now THAT’S a good example of “too much research” and research holding up the story. If you’re someone so versed in a historical period that you -know- the exact name and color of a character’s underwear and can include that information =without= creating traffic-bumps in the narrative flow, sure, why not do so? I, for one, really like texture in a story. But I, for one, also put down a book after I spot a couple of research dumps that can readily be translated as the author saying, “I suffered through my research, and now you’re going to suffer through it, too.”

  3. There is a fantasy author who has a long series of extremely thick novels in the same world with much the same characters (at least, so I understand). I read one of his novels. One. Apparently he had put so much effort into researching old sailing ships and how to sail them that he put every … last … detail into his novel. I thought it would never end. To this day I don’t understand how he got so popular because it was the most boring book I’ve ever read, and I’ve read books on programming!

    I swore I would never do that. I think the major research I’m going to do for my WIP is refamilarize the areas in Seattle where my book takes place. Things have changed since 2001! Imagine that. πŸ™‚

  4. I keep writing romantic fiction set in 2nd century Rome because after doing all the research into it I know it so well it is just a reflexive backdrop. *when research becomes mayor of your butt*

  5. This is a constant danger for me. As a former history grad student, I LOVE research. I love discovery and I find it a great source for brainstorming ideas. BUT… once I’m in the writing phase I definitely have to work to keep the research urge at bay, or it will take over!

    One challenge I’m facing now is balancing authenticity with readability and simplicity. I’m working on an MG fantasy inspired by ancient Japan — but not historical. (I went to grad school, I should mention, for pre-modern Japanese history). I want to make sure I’m not being culturally insensitive or exoticizing aspects of the culture I’m creating, or using authentic cultural details as “decoration.” I don’t have a great solution for how to handle the complexities. I’ve read a bunch of historically-inspired YA and MG fantasy and the ones that I think do it well are able to create something utterly new and yet familiar on some level (The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner is an awesome example IMO — set in a version of ancient Greece that resonates but is fresh.) If anyone here has worked out some strategies for working in this context I’d love to hear about it!

    1. Hi, I’m in Japan. I’ve had the same qualms that you do about using Japan as a setting — I don’t want to be wrong, and I don’t want to be dumb. However, if you set it in a fantasy place inspired by Japan, then you don’t have to worry about that so much. Lots of people complained about Shogun, which WAS set in historical Japan, but many more people enjoyed the story.

      If you set the fantasy in another place, then you take all the inspiration you can get from Japan, and add your own bits with no problem. It’s a pretend place after all, and all you have to do is make sure it’s internally consistent. For example, you wouldn’t put your characters in cotton yukatas when it’s a sub-zero arctic world. Or outlaw yellow clothing for all the lower-classes, then forget and put the merchant’s daughter in yellow . . . (unless you’ve got a plot point that centers on her getting executed for a dumb reason).

      One of my very favorite SF authors has a society that is based on Meiji Japan, White Russia, Regency England and lots of other influences. It works very well.

  6. THANK you, Jenny! I was neck deep in research last Saturday before I stopped myself with the a reminder that I am not Doris Kearns Goodwin. Then I got back to my writing πŸ™‚

      1. Was that before or after the whale penis chapter? I don’t recall. πŸ˜‰

    1. Oh, I hated that book so hard. Wish I could have bailed, but Am Lit prof was a huge Melville fan.

  7. Jenny, so true! Too much research hurts a story. When a writer puts the results of his research into the story, it becomes about that profession/historical period/geographic location, when in fact any story should be about human emotions. The exact shape of a skirt or length of a sail is unimportant as long as the people’s thoughts and actions ring true.
    I wrote a story once about time travel and Native Americans. It was an extremely bad story, never published, but my writing group congratulated me on the depth of my research about the Native American culture. I was surprised: I got all my knowledge and terminology on the subject from a couple picture books for elementary school children. Apparently it was enough.

  8. One of my favourite Sue Grafton’s was Q is for Quarry–and it was based on a real case, the files of which she had access to. In this case, it was just the right amount of research.

    I’ve also read Sacajawea by Anna Lee Waldo. It had footnotes. I remember enjoying the book, but yeah. It. Had. Footnotes. And, it was a novel. With footnotes.
    It kinda took a long time to read πŸ˜‰

  9. I like a well researched book in that the facts are facts – I loathe seeing a glaring error because it takes me out of story.

    Worst-case example by romance authors – baby oil, or any oil, is not good for use with latex condoms as it weakens them! (Still haven’t forgiven a few authors for that one.)

    Basic errors kick me out of a novel and I don’t trust the integrity of the story.

    1. I had a woman write once and tell me that the errors in my school teacher protagonist threw her out of the story. “You could have at least done your research,” she said.
      I was a public school teacher for fifteen years.
      Sometimes you can’t win.

      1. I wouldn’t have a clue how to respond to that kind of critique. I’m admittedly, er, impatient? I must learn the grace to not immediately retort a juvenile ‘bite me’.
        None of my teachers were alike in their methods but I adored them. They were Jenny, not Viola Swamp.

        1. Even Viola Swamp wasn’t Viola Swamp. She was really Miss Nelson…….as well as one of the all time great characters in fiction!

      2. You told us about that one, but she was speshul. I mean when it is a significant error that’s been proven something else. The only thing I can say about public school is that it varies not just from District to District but school to school and even elementary to middle in the same school, especially if your head of department is a dick.

    2. There are many things wrong with oils & condoms πŸ™‚ Ineffective and unsanitary. Totally unromantic.

  10. Recently I read a book describing the siege of a castle in the twelfth century. The people in the castle were starving while they had to watch their enemies roast potatoes over their campfire: bad lack of research as potatoes didn’t come to Europe until the Conquistadors brought them back from South America. I feel that if you want to write in a different time period, you should feel quite at home in it. Of course for Europeans, it’s a little easier as a lot of castle (and other historic sites) tours give you information on everyday life nowadays.

    On the other hand, I remember the ugly case of the black-footed ferret… I guess a writer should always know a little more than she puts on the page. As a reader, I don’t want to be informed about everything that concerns the topic but I want to feel secure with the story, just expecting the author will not present me with such blunders.

    1. The potato-roasting is a good example of the author not RECOGNIZING they haven’t done the research. One alternative was just to say the enemy was roasting their food–after all, starving people don’t need to smell their FAVORITE THING cooking in order to feel tormented by it. It could just be, y’know, edible. (And the other alternative, of course, would be to look up a food that armies actually ate in the 12th century.)

    2. For me as the reader, the blunder with the potato I could let slide only for my interest in the overall plight of those people. But I’m with ya if the book is glaringing riddled with inaccuracies.
      My research Saturday was making sure I had the dates and events surrounding Dorchester Heights correct. I got so caught-up in my spontaneous obsession over things I’ve known since childhood, that I forgot all my heroine needs to know is that it’s the best view of big brother Boston she’ll see.
      It was such relief to write the scene.

  11. Terry Pratchett’s books have frequent footnotes. And they are excellent. I think there are footnotes and there are footnotes.

  12. *This* is why I read this blog. I got hung up on my illustrations. It’s good, solid creative advice. Thanks for the point in the right direction.

      1. Dog pictures are to this blog what baking soda is to cookies. The posts would be flat without them. πŸ˜‰

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