H: How Much Research is Too Much Research

All right, writers; stop me if you’re heard this one.

You’re planning a new book. It’s got an interesting setting, something you’ve always been interested in but don’t actually know that much about. You want to be informed and know your material. You start doing some research. Articles, fashion plates, photographs. You’re making notes. You keep discovering more and more minutae about the period or area you’re looking into. The more you learn, the more you feel you need to learn. How can you possibly write about this when there is just so much to know that you don’t know?

A year and a half later, you’re still researching. You don’t feel any closer than you were before. In fact, you feel further away. Finally, exhausted but still convinced you’re not ready to start writing, you shelve the project. You’ll keep looking into it. You swear.

Does this sound familiar to anyone else?
It’s an afflication that sometimes occurs in us writer-types. I have it, and a lot of my writing friends do, too. Fear of messing something up, fear of seeming ignorant, fear of not fully understanding your own material… it can eat a good book alive.

The thing is, writers aren’t experts. We can’t be. To become an expert on every topic tackled in every book would take decades or more. And you don’t need to be an expert. Writing is sleight of hand. You display what you do know, and hide what you don’t know behind it.

All you need is a working knowledge. This means that you understand how something works in theory. Do you know that blood spatter sprays across surfaces in patterns that can be used to determine facts about a crime scene? Great! You’re now equipped to write a scene where your detective analyzes blood spatter.

The amazing thing about writing is that there are no visuals accompanying your words — you’re evoking the visuals. Everything that is “seen” is in the mind of the reader, implicated by words that you’ve written. As Stephen King famously said, “writing is telepathy.” So while a movie needs to know the blood spatter to the audience, our audience creates the splatter. Watch this:

you've at least seen dexter, right? everyone's seen dexter.
you’ve at least seen dexter, right? everyone’s seen dexter!

“Do you see that?” she asked, and indicated a still-wet red shower sprayed across the wall. Trails slid down, thick congealing drops reaching toward the floor.

His heart pounded and he recognized the pattern, how it moved in an arc away from the fallen body. “The victim was standing right here,” he murmured. “He had no idea what was coming.”

Okay, I wrote that in five seconds, so it’s not very good. But I think it gets my point across. I don’t know much about blood spatter. But I don’t need to. The reader does half the work for me. We meet in the middle.

So long as your book goes through a good, wide range of alpha readers, there’s nothing to fret about. Those people are there to tell you if anything sticks out as being incorrect, which leaves you in a position where you don’t have to torture yourself.

It may seem like bad advice but you just can’t know everything. That blood spatter may only appear in one chapter. The next chapter might have details about zookeeping. And the one after that goes into the daily behaviour of the zoo animals. But you can’t become a forensic investigator! Or a zoologist! Or a veterinarian. You’ll never actually write if you do.

Writing is all an illusion. Don’t worry about what you don’t know unless someone tells you that you should. You show the audience what you do know, and so long as nothing you say is incorrect, they’ll fill in what they know in return.

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