Thursday, July 30, 2015

How Much Research is Enough?

As I, Donis, mentioned a couple of weeks ago, I’ve just begun a new novel, and I must say that though I have been working my little tail off lately, I haven’t written very much on the actual story. I’ve been doing research.

The series that I’m writing now is historical, so there is always a certain amount of research that must be done, but every single time I start a new book I end up wrestling with the question of how much research is too dang much. I mean, eventually you have to write the book.

I keep telling myself that it isn’t necessary to do so much research that I become the world’s foremost expert on my subject. Right now I’m researching realistic and historically accurate ways to kill people. This is always problematic for me. Sadly, I have reached such a state of paranoia that I am a little bit afraid to do murderous research on my home computer, lest the NSA bust down my door in the middle of the night. Once I I spent many hours doing anonymous research on library computers because wanted to discover exactly how oil field workers used nitroglycerin to clear obstructions from a well. I am writing murder mystery, after all, and I thought that blowing someone to hell with nitro seemed like a colorful way to commit murder.

I really want to give my reader a true experience of the time and place I write about. I want you to know what it was like to live in southeastern Oklahoma during the flu epidemic of 1918. I want to be accurate, but in the end, I’m writing fiction, not history. Less is almost always more. It’s way too easy to overwrite. You don’t need to explain everything (which I have been guilty of doing.) Even so, that doesn’t mean I can play fast and loose with the facts. One thing I absolutely do not want to do is take the reader out of the story by writing something so obviously anachronistic that she stops and says, “What the …?”

Many years ago a woman told me about a movie she had seen in which an aspiring author walks into a publishing house with a manuscript in hand and asks to see an editor. He gets right in. The editor says, “sure, leave your manuscript with me and come back tomorrow.” The very next morning, the author returns to find that the editor has read the book overnight and loved it. He gives the author a check and tells him that his book will be on the shelves in two weeks.

What? What is this? The Nicholas Tesla Time Warp Publishing House? Their motto is Publishing Faster Than the Speed of Light. I want this publisher.

A lot of people who saw that movie didn’t know or care that that scenario is wrong, but we writers know it’s not only wrong, it’s ridiculous. I remember that story when I’m tempted to think that most of my readers know nothing about Oklahoma in 1918, so I can fudge a little. Somebody knows the truth, and believe me, they’ll let you know when you’ve got it wrong.

Usually history is not front and center in a historical novel. In novels of any ilk, I think it’s the characters that make the story. Walter Mosely said, “Fiction is a collusion between the reader and the novel. Your readers will go along with you, creating a much larger world as they do. It won’t be exactly the world you intended them to see, but it will be close enough—sometimes it will be better”.


j.a. kazimer said...

Congrats on the new novel.

I agree about time and setting and giving the reader a genuine experience. I love that in a book.

Julia Harmon said...

Looking forward to reading your new novel. You've probably read John M Barry's The Great Influenza. Fascinating! My WIP has a character who was orphaned by the pandemic.

Donis Casey said...

Julia, I have Barry's book at my elbow!