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?
- 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.