Writers, So You’ve Done Your Research, Now, How Much Of It Should You Include?
By: Editorial Intern Zoe Andrews
As an aspiring author, the fear of looking like a complete dunce through your work can hang over your head like a mistletoe at an office party. In order to battle this, many authors will spend hours researching what they are writing about. Perhaps your story takes place in a mining town and your main character is a miner. It would probably be a good idea to research how mining works, what all of the instruments and processes are called, and even the colloquialism of the miners. It’s good to know what you are writing about, otherwise someone reading it may look at it and think, this writer has no idea what they are talking about, and you have just lost credibility (unless of course, your story takes place in a mining town in a different universe on a planet called Yvelerak, in which case you aren’t bound to earthly conventions of mining).
However, this extensive research can be just as detrimental as not doing research at all. If little research is the office mistletoe, let’s call this abundance of information the punch bowl at the party that your one heavy-handed coworker made a little too fun. It’s okay in small doses. You can even get away with a few glasses, but if you start losing count, you’ve probably had too much. The same goes for the technical lingo and information you shove into your story to make it more believable. You want your reader to believe you have been in a mining town doing hard labor in the mines, but not that you sound like you want them to believe that.
I once had a writing teacher who told us about a story she was working on for one of her grad classes. The main story took place in an archeological dig, so of course she researched and researched until she could have a discussion with any archeologist. Her teacher, though, tossed the paper at her and told her it was awful. Definitely harsh, but his reasoning was sound. She had compiled so much information, and inserted so much of it into the story, that it made the otherwise five pages’ worth of plot into a seventeen-page encyclopedia of archaeology. There was so much mumbo jumbo her teacher could hardly stand to read it. The same thing will happen to your readers if every other line is explaining, in depth, how mining works, where the rocks go, and why it’s called what it is. If the reader doesn’t need to know where the rocks go after the miners dig them out, then don’t tell them. It’s good that you know in case you decide it becomes relevant later, or if it’s mentioned in passing, but don’t overwhelm your reader all at once.
Now, what is considered too much information is all dependent on how long your story is. For a short story, I would say try to only explain things if it is absolutely necessary to convey your plot. Otherwise, the page count is so short, you won’t have enough room to fully engage the characters and conflict. In a longer story, you have much more wiggle room. Say you have an average book length of about two to three hundred pages. Assuming this story has much more happening in it than a twenty-page short story, it will most likely be necessary to explain why the miners are putting the rocks where they are or how the machines work. It might even be necessary to explain why Big Jimbo is the name of your mining drill—it used to be called ‘the Drill’ but one of its operators died and they all decided to honor his memory by naming it after him. Your reader has prepared themselves to sit down and be completely engrossed in the world you have created. If you are writing a trilogy, you have even more room to explain your world and the world of the miners. At this point, your reader will want to know how everything works, because, with such a long story, the miners will probably find themselves in many more situations involving mining equipment and processes. Maybe there is a cave-in and your character has to find a way out because no one knows he was down there and all he has is his equipment—he heard the story of Old Chancy who died down there after three days with no food and trying to eat his left thumb, because he was right handed you see, and he didn’t really need it.
The important thing to remember is to know your limit. If you don’t have work the next day and you have a ride home, indulge all you want in the punch. However, if you have to be up at 6AM to take your child to school, it’s best not to go too far. Know how much space you have and work within it. Always remember that you are writing your story because you want to convey something, and unless you’re writing a how-to manual on working in a mine, don’t overwhelm your reader with technicalities.