Research: But Where Do I Stop?

Pulling a Book Out of Stubborn Researchers? Author Photo, Swabisch Hall, Germany, June 2018.

“Stop when you have what you need.” It’s the sort of advice that makes writers want to pull out any remaining hair, or to take a large, blunt object and apply it to the head or rump of the oh-so-helpful individual. How do you know when to quit digging? At what point do you, the author, have enough detail and information to stop looking for more and just start putting story words on paper?

It depends.

  1. What genre are you writing? 2. How detail obsessed, er, aware are your readers? 3. How detail focused are you, the author?

If you are writing something like historical fiction, or hard sci-fi, or some kinds of alt-history, you need a lot of background. For example, for my alt-history of WWI, I needed to know about food in the Habsburg Empire during the war, and what fighting conditions were on the Eastern Front, what firearms were commonly issued to the cavalry, the Habsburg court politics at the time of the outbreak of the war, and so on. What were the first battles like in the eastern part of the Empire? It turns out that one problem was “sugar sand,” a very fine sand that was kicked up by artillery hits. It got into everything an jammed rifles, turning them into clubs after even very limited exposure. That might not be something you need if you are writing about a woman in Vienna in 1914. It is critical for a writer describing the experience of a front-line infantry officer. Certain genres depend on taking what is known and building on it, or extrapolating from known to unknown. You have to get the science right, or the bulk of the history correct, so your changes or additions make sense.

2. If you are writing in a genre known for readers who know their stuff, and who will one-star a book because “cotton was not in common use at that date in Europe, and that region was still controlled by Poland, not Russia, and the heavy cavalry had not switched to the karabela from [other type of sword]” then you need to err on the side of more notes. Ditto hard science fiction, or some sub-genres of military sci-fi. But you are probably already aware of what readers demand, and what they’ll forgive, if you’ve done your homework.

3. I am detail-oriented to the point that professors metaphorically whapped me up side the head with a rolled up MA thesis because I kept missing the forest around the trees. You might go the other way, and prefer to let the world built itself, once you get some important basics. If pressed, I’d guess that 2/3 of what I dug up found places in the alt-history stories, and 3/4 of the medieval economic history and trade material I read, plus a few spare bits and pieces from here and there.

But at some point, you have to stop digging and just write. You can have too many details, too much “oh wow this is so cool I have to put it in” material, or too many “Adding this bit of Science!! will show how well I know the field so people will believe my story works.” You don’t want to the fiction version of Frederick Jackson Turner, the historian who published only one book, and spent the rest of his life getting more material and taking notes and getting more material and . . . Died. Nor do you want your book to be one long data dump. Those are called “non-fiction” or “A Guide to the World of [book series here].*”

Do you have what you need to flesh out your world and the events there? Can you explain the science well enough that readers nod and accept what you wrote, and trust you to get the rest of the stuff correct? Unless you are writing for a picky niche, you’re probably set. You can always go back and look for more if you discover that you need it. It happens to all of us.

*Yes, eventually I will publish that Familiars World guide people are asking for. Just not this month.

20 thoughts on “Research: But Where Do I Stop?

  1. Somebody made some mistakes in describing a lemur but then the lemur in question is a magical being. [Crazy Grin]

  2. Yes, eventually I will publish that Familiars World guide people are asking for. Just not this month.</I

    Hopefully in January of Next Year. πŸ˜‰

  3. I will say that a big part of my issue on when to stop research is the fear of the “unknown unknowns,” the things that it never would have occurred to me would be different in the time and place I was writing about. It feels like the only way you can find those is to read so much that you essentially become an expert on the subject, and even then, more expertise is always useful. I guess eventually you just have to ditch that fear and move on, but when?

    1. Ah, that’s the rub. I stop when I feel comfortable that I can tell the story with enough important details to build the world and set the stage. I’ll miss things, but readers should have enough to fill in the “hazy background.”

      What details are critical to the story? In the Merchant books (first three novels) it was commerce, trade, and economics, with hides and magic second. So I focused my research on business and what the actual kontors (Novgorod in this case) were like and how they functioned, with some neat details sprinkled in. Magic I could fudge if need be, and I’d learned enough about tanning and trade to get the big stuff right. I know I missed a lot, but thus far readers have forgiven me.

    2. Read a lot of random history to build a questioner in your mind.

      I knew I was getting somewhere when I read a question, “What sort of world lets princes galivant about and keeps princesses under guard?” and automatically thought, “Er, a normal one?”

  4. In Fantasy there’s the added complication that not only do you need the research in X to make your faux-version of it plausible, even in the background, you also have to watch the language you use about it, lest you evoke something you won’t want.

    For example, it’s no matter for wonder that every Fantasy(tm) culture has a beer-equivalent. If readers wonder about technicalities such as, say, ale or hops, you can simply refuse to get into that in your story. For wine or mead, well maybe. But once you start wanting to speak of tea, coffee, hot chocolate, etc., you have to give some thought to the fact that “foreign” is part of the connotation of the product names for the English reader (somewhat less for tea, given “herbal tea”), and you either have to change the name (and then define it) or explain what it’s doing there locally. [Or make the reader stop reading to ask himself that very question, interrupting his trance.]

    If my generic warrior orders herbal tea in the local tavern, well, that’s one thing. If he orders tea with milk and sugar, then is it Pekoe? What country did it come from? Is milk actually a normal accompaniment? Why not ghee? Does the sugar come from beets or cane (or is it honey)? Is there a tax on it, or is it smuggled? Etc., etc., etc., none of which (probably) is of any importance to the story but the questions of which might need attention without weighing down the reader.

    Or did he have steaming cup of klato, and all the rest goes unmentioned?

    1. “tisane” is the tea-euphemism I’ve seen most often, handy because it’s used in English and in French to refer to any beverage made by steeping plant matter in hot matter.

    2. Sometimes you really don’t know. Like me knowing that it was hilarious to have a hot chocolate recipe in St. Alphonsus de Liguori’s Moral Theology; but me not knowing that it was there because of a fairly serious cocoa obsession, among Spanish-Mexican colonial Catholics of means. Chocolate and fasting, or medical use of chicolate, was a hot topic and required landmark decisions in canon law. What a mess!

      Obviously the thing to do would be not to rewrite the theoretical Book One, but rather to have a big stink ensue in Book Two over the protagonist not understanding the true implications of drinking klato in public.

      I mean, nobody minds in a human city, but maybe elves take klato very seriously. And maybe it is too holy to drink in public. Or on Tuesdays.

      I mean, traditionally Koreans didn’t drink straight on at each other, in public. I think that is a weaker prohibition today, but maybe not. Who wants to find out? In a drunken brawl? Among outraged cute young K-pop fans?

  5. Gads – I have to tackle the second half of my novel about a crusading abolitionist, becoming a battlefield nurse during the war, and I just know that the readers who are obsessive about the American Civil War will be going through every word with a gimlet eye … so, I will have to tackle the stack of books to the ceiling soon … in order to write about the war through her eyes.
    Fortunately a lot of the female ACW volunteer nurses left memoirs, so I have that going for me…

      1. And they’re women – so the details of weapons, tactics and orders of battle will be … not in their job description, but since I will have my heroine following the army in the West, I still have to get down into the detailed weeds. Just to hold up my credibility as a heavily-researching author.

  6. I read a lot of history. I favor primary source. And then I hie off on my high fantasy stories on the assumption that I probably could put a world together.

  7. Oh yeah… Down the rabbit hole(s) to find details… and it may be one sentence in the book, but you (and those pesky readers) will know it is right.

  8. I’ve noticed something in several anime episodes recently β€” the hero brandishes his (or her) sword and it makes a sort of clanking or rattling sound.

    Swords DO NOT make such noises unless the hilt and/or guard are loose. Only an idiot takes a sword into battle with loose hardware. There’s one place a little research would have made a big improvement.

    I know, I know, it’s supposed to ‘heighten the drama of the moment’ or some such horseshit, but it makes me cringe every time.

    I’m involved in some research right now to set the parameters for a sodium-sulfur-chlorine battery fabricated with nanotech. The cells are only a few hundred atoms thick; how thick is that? How many cells fit inside the battery? How much energy could it store? How much would it weigh?

    I did find out that, surprisingly, sulfur and chlorine atoms are less than half the size of sodium atoms even though sodium is element #11, sulfur is #16 and chlorine is #17. It seems more protons give the nucleus a stronger positive charge, which pulls the electrons in closer. All of the Group 1 and 2 alkali metals are the largest atoms in their row of the periodic table.

  9. So a research paddle about Martian air density unearthed the gem (just published last April!) that Mars has two speeds of sound: +/- 240 m/sec for sounds under 270 hz, and +/- 250 m/sec for sounds above 270 hz. It has to do with the compression of CO2 at Mars’ atmospheric density and temperature on the surface, since dioxide is the supermajority of its atmosphere (as in, the air is “CO2 with Other Natural Flavors”). But how do I fit THAT in?


    1. That’s a bit more difficult than 1) the definition of “fat quarters,” a fabric measure used by quilters and other project-makers, which I couldn’t figure out how to work in, or 2) which weight and blade-shape of karabela [Polish cavalry saber] to use in the same book. But it was a delightful half hour or so looking up different karabelas, including confirming that the Polish-language source was indeed correct and that was what I wanted.

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