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The amount of research I'm doing for my novel is staggering. To the point where my spouse says I need to write a companion book (or a blog) just talking about the research! Sometimes I research for hours simply to include one line.

I live in terror of having my characters eat a food that didn't exist in that time and place! Okay, not really. But that is in fact the level of accuracy I'm going for.

Food is one example. I describe in detail the first meal my time travelers have when they arrive in ancient Egypt. The second meal I wrote more sparsely and my critique group jumped on me. They wanted more! This makes sense because the Exodus (yes, the Exodus) is starting in a few days and the contrast between the rich assortment of food they ate in Egypt vs the manna and quail they have in the desert is an important part of the story. Though my group wasn't thinking of that, they just liked my food descriptions.

I'm also researching clothing, housing, furniture, songs, linguistics, hair styles, ethnic groups, landscape, plants, makeup, musical instruments, dance styles, footwear, brickmaking, agricultural practices, domesticated animals, wild animals, weather, metalworking, joinery, midwifery, medicine, and so much Torah I say it's like having 20 bat mitzvahs (only that's a huge underestimate).

In addition to using beta readers (and some basic common sense), how do you balance the amount of research you're doing with how much ends up in the work? Some times it's easy, because the research makes subtle changes you incorporate, other times it's harder to figure out.

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    Is there a way you can use the research to make a supplemental blog/podcast about the cool facts you're finding? This can help promote the finished book and add an element of "discoverability" that may interest publishers. – April Feb 28 at 16:26
  • For what it may be worth, I am a non-fan of extensive food and meal descriptions. Pages upon pages of a buffet or the courses at a state dinner--yawn. I sometimes put the book down thinking "Ah. One of those authors." Other times I flip ahead to the next chapter and hope the 3-page long food description was a one-off. – DPT Feb 28 at 16:26
  • @DPT Whereas I'm someone who will read books with lots of food detail even if the rest of the story stinks. Heck, I read cookbooks like novels. And authors like Michael Twitty? swoon – Cyn Feb 28 at 17:24
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    Yes, finishing the current project should always be "Plan A" :) – Chris Sunami Feb 28 at 22:08
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    (I've been in this situation, but on the other side: as a spouse of someone who did excruciating research for each line of a novel, and I must say I enjoy knowing that the book I'm reading is very factual and reliable in detail, despite being fiction. But I'm a scientific mind myself, so it probably doesn't count. Still, it's always clear when the author adds details (or whole scenes) just to show off, and it should be thoroughly avoided). – Zeus Mar 1 at 0:33
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I think you're conceptualizing this wrongly. The research doesn't end up in your work, it informs your work.

The amount of research you do ends up affecting the fabric of your book, how real it feels, how multilayered the world is, how unexpected the details, and connections. But NO piece of research should ever be included in your book just because you know it. Your research is there so you have something to draw on whenever you need it. To put it another way, you aren't doing research to put it in your book, you're doing it to pull your book out of it.

As far as how much research you need, it needs to be enough that your world feels compelling and real, but not so much that it's stopping you from writing. If it isn't interfering with your writing, no amount of research is "too much." If it inspires you to write richly detailed prose, that's all to the good. But if you're shoehorning it into the book, not because it belongs, but just to show off your knowledge, then it's "too much." And if you're spending all your time researching, and you never actually write the book, that's "too much" too.

  • Excellent, yes. And while I might not have explained it in the question, this is exactly what I do. I use the research to help me set up the basics of the world. Simple things like showing characters washing their faces in the morning from a basin is due to research (or just knowing in this case) that there was not indoor plumbing. I don't talk about the plumbing. I just show the basin. – Cyn Feb 28 at 21:15
  • @Cyn Maybe I'm not clear what you're asking then... I did expand my answer a little, does it cover the dilemma you're having? – Chris Sunami Feb 28 at 21:25
  • Both versions of your answer are correct and useful. I did get blocked for a few months by the task of figuring out character names and relationships (I posted a question about that a while ago) but not by my research, though it slows me down here and there. And I do use research to inform my world and show how it's constructed (without needing to explain it). What is making you think you're unclear about what I'm asking? – Cyn Feb 28 at 22:09
  • It just seems that if you're already doing that, you've already figured out a relationship with research that works for you :) – Chris Sunami Feb 28 at 22:14
  • Yes I have, but that doesn't mean I always get it right. Sometimes my readers say put in more and sometimes they say put in less. I probably have a decent balance overall but that's not the same as having it balanced in every area. – Cyn Feb 28 at 22:20
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Include exactly as much detail as you need for the story to make sense. If the group complained about you changing your descriptions simply because they liked the rich description of the foods, they were doing you a disservice in terms of their critique. The reader should like the description of the rich foods in Egypt more than the description of foods eaten in the desert while fleeing. That's good writing.

I know it's vague and not immediately useful to say "use as much detail as you need", but that's really the best way to do it. Any time you're tempted to add in some historical research bits, consider the tone of the story and what you're trying to express, and whether or not those details add to the story, or simply distract.

In this case, having read some of your previous questions, it seems like conveying some historical information is important to your story, so I would certainly err on the side of more detail-- but never to the point that it fails to serve plot.

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    +1. We aren't writing novels about what terrific researchers we are. We are writing novels for others to enjoy. In my mind, a 10:1 ratio of research:story 'feels' about right. In other words, learning ten times as much as goes in the book feels right to me, by instinct. – DPT Feb 28 at 16:29
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    +1 for "never to the point that it fails to serve plot". That, I believe, is the line that separates 'too much' from 'just right'. – Sara Costa Feb 28 at 16:37
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I set "levels," and don't include technology beyond the level. Often I only research a word, in an online etymology dictionary, to see when it originated. e.g. "linen" comes from "linum" which is the Roman word for the flax plant, which provides the fibre for "line" (thread). Done, linen predates the time period of my story, thus is allowed, the production of line and fabric is a potential industry.

Basically, although I use modern English words to make it easy for my readers, I don't allow any words that have origins past my cut-off date. If they don't trace back to Old English, or pre-Cutoff, I don't use them, and certainly not any technology they involve.

As for the rest of the research I do, it is often cursory, I look up a few relevant things that prove a point and quit. I intentionally do not take any notes, if I can't remember it for fifteen minutes, it isn't worth remembering. For example, I am not truly interested in all the possible sword types that exist, I don't want to choose one from an array of hundreds, I want one sword that is not too heavy and suitable for a woman to carry. So I am not immersing myself in the history of swords, I am looking for ONE THING to describe, and I know it when I see it.

In fiction, my goal is only to present the sense of the time, I do not feel compelled to be historically accurate. If I give a woman sword X, I don't really care if there is a reader out there that is going to claim I should have given her sword Y. Because sword X is a real sword, I saw it. Maybe that is what her father used to teach her self-defense, and that is her sword of preference. Would a father teach his daughter self-defense? I think it is a pretty radical claim that not ONE father of the time would ever do that! To me it is plausible HER father did that, and -- as always in my fiction -- it is okay to follow exceptional people that do not fit the standard mold, no matter what time period I am writing in.

I research only what I feel is necessary for the page or scene or character. I research with that in mind, and I stop the minute I am convinced I found it. I want to be accurate, but I don't want to write a history lesson or explain why I am accurate. I feel like that kind of exposition stalls the story.

So to answer the question more directly: Nearly everything I research ends up in the book, in the sense that I don't research something unless I really need to write about it, and although I may discover things I didn't know in the process, I don't turn the research into an idle learning process just because it is fun, I stay focused on the goal and the scene, and don't learn any more than is necessary. It is my time to write, not procrastinate by learning a bunch of stuff that will never make it into my story.

Now, that said, I am a discovery writer so I may discard scenes even if they contained a researched item. But at the time I am, say, looking to see medieval footwear, I find that and get out and write about it. I just tried it! It took about one minute to find a history of the shoe from neolithic to modern times, and two more minutes to find medieval shoes specifically, with plenty of ideas of earlier shoes. Roman sandals could be worn today and look normal. Medieval shoes could be basically moccasins with leather or string ties; but you can get fancy with pointy shoes, or even cork soles. Cool. Let's write. That's what my research looks like.

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You need to satisfy your readers.

Depending on genre (and subgenre), as well as many other aspects, the book may attract different kinds of readers. One kind may look for the story and wouldn't mind any anachronisms, the other kind would appreciate historical and technical accuracy and even rely on the book to expand their knowledge.

So, if you want the ancient history buffs to enjoy your book, you need to do a lot of research (or show that you are already an expert in that area). There maybe aren't too many of them, but if they would praise your book, that support may prove to be crucial for the success. And if you do a lot of research, don't be afraid to show it off. For example, find a way to stress the fact that the food choices of your characters are not random, but rather enforced by what was available at the time and place of your story.

On the other hand, if you want your book to be just an easy read, limit your research to just a minimal level. Focus on other aspects, like plot and characters.

"How much research is too much" is a difficult question. If you target your book to the history buffs, that crowd can be nitpicking and unforgiving. You may be already familiar with online communities of history enthusiasts - so try to guess what level of accuracy in a novel can be satisfying.

  • Nice points. Although I want the book to be accessible to everyone, my target audience is Jews (specifically children and families). There are a couple well-known Christian creative representations of the Exodus but not really any Jewish ones. I'm appalled every time I hear one of the local Rabbis reference the film The Ten Commandments from the bimah as a teaching tool. Well more than half of my research is religious. (1 of 2) – Cyn Feb 28 at 20:25
  • I'm working like crazy to get every last detail right (which is impossible because commentators disagree with each other and a lot is left out, like the existence of most of the women). This particular question is mostly about the non-religious research, like food and clothing. (2 of 2) – Cyn Feb 28 at 20:26

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