Tips for researching your story

By Joe Moore

My co-author, Lynn Sholes, and I write globe-hopping thrillers that always deal with some form of futuristic technology—human cloning, quantum computing and mechanics, string theory, human cell regeneration, faster-than-light propulsion, and many other yet-to-be-developed science. We spend a great deal of time before and during the drafting of our manuscript researching or story. Often, we call upon experts to help us formulate our fictionalized theories. For instance, we contacted a famous geneticist and asked: “We know you can’t regenerate an entire human body from just a sample of DNA, but if you could, how would it be done.” The result was the science in THE PHOENIX APOSTLES.

I find researching for our novels to be as much fun as writing them. It’s the excitement of uncovering those tidbits and morsels of fact that add seasoning and spice to the story. I believe that research adds layers to a story. It keeps the story from becoming thin and two-dimensional. With the right amount of research, we can round out character’s lives, locations, settings, and atmosphere. Each layer helps transport our readers into a more fascinating and realistic story-world. Some genres demand more research than others—science fiction, medical, legal, criminal, and historical to name a few. But all books can benefit from in-depth research.

The general rule in researching for a manuscript is: more is better during the collecting stage but less is better during the writing stage. Here are some tips to help find the right balance.

When we research, we collect a great deal of material, almost always more than we need. We come across a lengthy article on a topic and highlight a dozen of those tasty info tidbits. The skill to researching is to choose one or two that will enhance the reader’s experience without bogging down the tale or turning our writing into a dry college lecture or travel guide. If you have a number of research items available for a particular scene, pick the one that helps put a little bit more icing on the story cake. Ask yourself which one helps develop the character or move the story forward the best. That’s the one to use. Keep the others in mind in case they’re needed later. Also remember that choosing the right research data will help lend authenticity to our writer’s voice.

Another tip is to never talk down to the reader by using information from our research that they might not understand. Never confuse the reader or push them out of the story by making them feel they’re not as smart as the writer. It’s really easy to put a book down and move to another out of frustration. Keep it simple—but not too simple. There are a number of ways to talk down to the reader. Avoid them all by not talking over their heads or dumbing down the information as if you were explaining it to a child. Even if the readers may not totally understand a fact or word, use it in such a way that they can mostly grasp the meaning from the context of the scene.

Avoid throwing in facts from your research just to prove you know how to look stuff up. Again, use your research only if it helps build your characters or advances your plot. Showing off your knowledge is not why the reader enjoys reading.

Lastly, avoid the dreaded info dump. Spread out your research information in just the right amounts to keep the reader from skimming over pages or skipping ahead. Your novel can educate readers and take them to places they’ve never been, but don’t forget that first and foremost, the reader wants to be entertained, not go back to school. Sprinkle in your research like spices and seasoning in a gourmet dish. Too little creates a bland taste, too much creates heartburn.

Zoners, any other researching tips and experiences to share?

tomb-cover-small“Vengeance can be earth-shattering.”
Max is back! Coming in July, Maxine Decker returns in THE TOMB, book #3 in the Decker series. This time around, the former OSI agent risks her life to stop the elimination of an entire branch of the U.S. Government.

15 thoughts on “Tips for researching your story

  1. Math problems at this hour? Before coffee? But I guess it’s better than the squiggly jumbled letter captchas.
    Your post is timely; I’m moderating a panel on research at Left Coast Crime, and you’ve made excellent points. Another thing to remember is your POV character’s experience. If your construction worker goes into an art museum, he’s likely to have a totally different experience than an art history major. I write deep POV, so even the narrative needs to be from the perspective of the POV character. Yesterday, I spent too much time trying to research what you call the trays set on stands in hotel banquet/receptions where my character was going to set her half-finished drink. But if what you call those suckers isn’t common knowledge, then she’s not going to know either, so she can set her glass on a tray with other dirty dishes.

    • Terry, thanks for putting up with our math test captcha. Spam on blogs is such a hassle, especially if you’re the one (me) in charge of de-spamming. Excellent tip about the POV character’s experience. As always, your comments are much appreciated.

  2. Joe, great points. Very helpful.

    Before I started writing novels I tried my hand at Sci Fi short stories. Never published any, but it was fun. I always liked to “invent” futuristic technology that could solve some of the world’s current problems. Someday I would like to go back and rewrite the stories for an anthology. Your ideas on how to use the research are great. Any tips on where or how you look for experts who are willing to to help with your ideas?

    And I want to compliment you on the new look of this blog site. It’s terrific! Thanks for your work in doing it.

    • Glad you like the new digs for TKZ. WordPress gives us so much more flexibility than Blogger. The move was a bit painful but we’re all moved in now. SciFi and Fantasy are world-building genres. It’s tough and I admire anyone who can pull it off. I hope you do go back and round up your stories. If nothing else, it would be fun. Good luck.

    • Steve, I forgot to answer your question on finding experts. Two sources are magazine/newspaper articles on your potential subject. Most mention or quote the experts. Then you can track them down. The other is to search college and university websites for listings of their professors that teach particular subjects. I’ve rarely been turned down. Most of these guys are looking to have some fun speculating on advanced tech.

  3. Thanks for this. I always enjoy reading how other writers work. And yes, the research is part of the fun, but as you say, you must resist the temptation to show off to your reader that you did your homework. The dreaded data dump is the uncool way to prove you know your topic. It’s a greater writing challenge to weave interesting facts naturally in the dialogue. And the end result is more enjoyable to read.

    • So true, Mike. Knowing just the right amount of seasoning makes for a great chef. Same goes for writing. Always keep Goldilocks and the Three Bears in mind. Too hot, too cold, just right.

  4. I’m off to india in a week or so and looking forward to doing some research:) My problem is, as a lover of history and travel, I could very easily end up just doing research and never actually writing the book!

  5. I like to learn something new for each story so the research aspect is what fires my enthusiasm. For my mysteries, this can range from uses for liquid latex to tilapia breeding to the prepper movement. For my scif/fantasy romances, I look toward futuristic and science articles to produce the technobabble. Even making someone go invisible isn’t out of the range of today’s technology. So my tip? Constantly be on the alert for items that spark your interest and keep clippings in files. You can look through them when you need inspiration. And don’t forget to slather your scenes with the five senses (from your character’s POV, naturally).

  6. Joe — and Lynn — I know from editing and immensely enjoying your two most recent novels that you really know how to ferret out fascinating facts to tie in with and enrich your story, and you know how to sprinkle them in in just the right places to make the read highly entertaining and enlightening!

  7. When I started writing my YA mystery/crime novel (my current WIP,) I knew I’d have to do some research. I also knew I’d need some “insider” information when it came to police procedures in certain situations. The research came in the form of a train trip (duplicating my protagonist’s journey) from Sydney to the gold mining town of Kalgoorlie in Western Australia (thankfully I live in Sydney). Everything I planned for her to do, I did. At one point, halfway through the trip, I thought I’d stepped into the story, when exactly the same thing that happened to my protagonist, happened to me. It was freaky, but at the same time, hilarious.
    As for the insider information in regard to police procedures, enter, Inspector Mellick of the Victorian Police Force, who accepted the challenge and became my go-to man for the next two years. His generosity and patience is something for which I will be forever grateful. Research can be fun, don’t stint on it.

Comments are closed.