The Research Trap: How Much Is Too Much?

This entry is part of the “Spoiled By Supplements” blog series.

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Today I want to talk about the first issue that pops up regarding supplemental material, one that plagues pretty much every writer: research.

Unless you are a personal expert at a particular craft or profession, chances are that if you write anything, you’ll have to do some research. Whether that takes the form of interviewing those who do have that knowledge, spending hours following the rabbit hole of Wikipedia links, combing through physical books, or actually going out and doing the thing the characters are doing… it all counts as research. And it can be pretty interesting, although many times it’s a hard slog through reams of material, searching for that one fact that will make your story ring with authenticity.

But there are two traps within the larger trap:

a) Procrastination, and
b) Oversharing what you learned.

Procrastination through research is easy to justify. I can’t tell you how many hours I’ve lost trying to track down a specific term or name or what-have-you. There’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to be accurate, but the trick is knowing when to go down that rabbit hole. And I can tell you, it should not be while you are in the middle of writing a story. Nothing will throw you out of the writing headspace more effectively than pausing to go, “I’ll just look this up real quick.” Trust me, it will not be quick. Even if you manage to find what you are looking for, when you come back, you’ll be utterly disoriented and have to start all over again to get back into the groove. When you run across a spot like that while writing, it is much better to just put a note in brackets or something to indicate that you need to look something up or fill in the details later. The second or third draft is a far more appropriate time to chase down and insert those details missing from the initial run-through.

For example, while writing my urban fantasy Spells in Sepia last November, there were several places where the main character needed to be doing forensic photography at crimes scenes. Now, I’ve watch some CSI and Law & Order, but I know better than to base my descriptions solely off of those, especially since the photographers are usually background characters. So I just put in brackets: “[AUTHOR’S NOTE: Character does forensic photography stuff, look up procedure later]” and then move on to the next bit of relevant action or dialog.

But oversharing what you’ve learned is perhaps the greater danger. When you’ve put all that effort into your research to make sure things are right, it’s tempting to then want to share all of those details with the reader. And that can really slow down or completely sink your story. This tendency is prevalent throughout genres, but if you write historical fiction, that’s where you have to be extra-careful that you don’t lose track of your plot and characters amidst a sea of interesting facts you learned.

Case in point: the Earth’s Children series by Jean M. Auel:

Image from an auction on

Now, this could be more a matter of personal preference, but I found this series to be weighed down by historical detail. It’s set during the Stone Age and focuses on Ayla, a Cro-Magnon orphan raised by Neanderthals, who sets out on a journey to find more of her own kind. The characters are interesting and the story itself, set in a time period that isn’t often written about, is compelling. And it is very clear that Jean M. Auel did a ton of research to make sure that she was describing the time period, the technology, and the way people lived as accurately as possible while still exercising creative license. But for me, the anthropological and archaeological technicalities had a sad tendency to take over and derail the plot. Yes, it’s interesting to hear about how Ayla learned how to make pots, but I don’t need fifteen pages describing it! This over-saturation and constant narrative sidebar made me stop reading the series after The Mammoth Hunters. I got about halfway through The Plains of Passage, but just couldn’t finish it. It’s a shame because part of me did want to see Ayla’s journey through. But I was looking for a story, not a series of lectures on Paleolithic life.

Again, this example is a subjective one. Different people will have different ideas of how much is “too much.” Think of doing research like collecting a pile of spices. Your story is the main dish, and the genre is the type of meal. The amount of spice you add to flavor that dish will depend on the meal you are making. Is is a fried egg with a sprinkle of oregano, or are you making an Indian curry? To avoid getting bogged down by unnecessary detail, season your story wisely.

One thought on “The Research Trap: How Much Is Too Much?

  1. I like the metaphor of “seasoning wisely.”

    Believe it or not, this question of how much research to do has been plaguing me at work recently. We need to figure out training materials to use for our tutors, online systems to use for scheduling, etc. and there is SO MUCH out there. You don’t want to end up reinventing the wheel if you can use something that already exists… but you want to find the best (or at least one of the best) options you can… but, in order to be thorough, it can feel like you’re endlessly researching without actually accomplishing anything.

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