Over-researching a novel is common, and it’s an easy trap to fall into. It happened to me when I was writing Placebo.
I was researching quantum mechanics so that I could render that part of the storyline, and finally I realized that I’d read more than enough books, watched more than enough documentaries, and visited more than enough quantum mechanics websites to last a lifetime. I remember stopping in the middle of a book, just shaking my head.
I’d gotten sucked into doing the very thing I’ve warned aspiring novelists not to do. That’s not the only time it’s happened, but it was the most recent and the most jarring.
So, how do we avoid that? When can we tell if we’ve done enough research? Here are three guidelines. Remember:
1. You’re writing a novel and not a research paper. Story matters more than anything. Readers aren’t coming to your book for information, but for entertainment. Resist the urge to show off how much you know—or how familiar you’ve become with Wikipedia. Yes, you’ll want to get the details right, but you don’t have to become an expert on every aspect of your tale—you just have to know the people who are. Brain-picking is not only essential, it’s also fun.
2. Research is an ongoing process that needs to happen while we write our novels, not beforehand. As we write, we will always come up with questions and have to go back to the Internet, the library, or the expert that we dug up somewhere to verify information. Don’t look at research as a separate part of the writing process or as something that precedes it, but rather as something that parallels it.
3. Believability trumps accuracy. In other words, as long as we can come up with a stunning believable scene that even those who are experts in the field would accept, we don’t have to make the events possible, accurate, or well-researched.
I usually visit the location that my novel is set in early in my writing process. Then, when the story has taken shape, I will usually go back to the location again to fact check what I need to in order to nail down the details, the drive times, the sunset and sunrise, and things of that nature.
If you ever start wondering if you’re researching too much, you are. Put all of that aside and get working on your story.