Tuesday, March 13, 2018

A Tricky Balance

By R.J. Harlick

Research is a little like an iceberg. A lot of it doesn’t show. How do you decide how much research to put into your work?

Though I’m writing fiction and could invent a world as fanciful as my imagination will conjure up, I do try to be as accurate as possible when it comes to writing aspects of the story that reflect the real world. I want my readers to be able to immerse themselves in my stories, without being rudely brought back to the real world by inconsistencies they know aren’t true, inconsistencies like wrongly placed streets in a well-known town or police procedures that don’t conform to those seen in the many cop shows we all watch

Sometimes these untruths can ruin a book. I remember a mystery written by a popular French writer who had set her story in my home town. She caused a great uproar on the part of Ottawa readers, when she incorrectly located the RCMP headquarters. It seemed to overshadow any positive views the book might have garnered. And might have even discouraged Ottawa readers from reading others by this author.

Research is critical to the success of a good crime novel and I quite enjoy doing it. Maybe it takes me back to my university days, when I’d spend many an hour in the library searching for golden nuggets of information. Except today I use the internet more than I do the library. Plus, I travel to get the touch and feel of the place I will be writing about and I spend many hours talking to people who have the knowledge I seek.

But I end up with reams of information, all of which I feel is absolutely critical for my story, particularly when it pertains to the indigenous community I am writing about. So the big challenge is what to include and what to leave out. It’s a tricky balance. 

When I start writing the new book, I feel the reader needs to know everything I now know in order to understand the story. But, I am terrified about putting them to sleep with too much information. Invariably the first draft includes too much. Once I sit back and read it in its entirety, I bring the red pen out and start slashing.

I keep reminding myself that the reader doesn’t need to know everything. They only need to know enough to understand and get a sense of the story and the people and location I am writing about. But the knowledge I have gained through my research helps me shape the story and give it life.

There are many ways to convey the information. While the temptation is to do long narrative explanations or descriptive passages, the best way to convey it is through character interactions with each other and with their setting. It can come through as an action scene, like performing a cultural ceremony or police procedure or simply travelling through the setting.  Dialogue is also a good way to convey information, either in words or forms of speech and it can also be conveyed through the internal musings of a character. And I mustn’t forget clothes. How you dress your characters can give your readers a lot of information about that character, particularly if you are writing a book set in another place and time.

The important thing to remember is to keep the detail to a minimum. The trick is understanding what constitutes the minimum. I find because I am too close to the writing, it is not always possible to determine this. So, I often rely on other eyes, editor or otherwise, to tell me when it’s too much.

Like I said. It’s a tricky balance. 


Paul D. Marks said...

Like you say, Robin, the reader doesn't need to know everything. But I think sometimes we want to share everything and show how much we know about this or that. Or make all that time spent researching count. But ultimately we do have to be judicious about it and just give them what they need not the entire encyclopedia :-) .

Unknown said...

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