Fiction Writer’s Guide: How much Research is too much?

Photo by Brenda Clarke
Photo by Brenda Clarke

I’ve been working recently on a novel that has grown from a short story I wrote last year. It’s a literary romance based in Mumbai about a drifter called Akash. He continued to fill my head after I wrote the last line of the short story and I realised his story was unfinished. It has become a novel about second chances that unravels amongst the dust and grime of the Mumbai’s streets and behind the gates of opulent houses.

Not for the first time during this novel, I have found it easy to be swallowed up in research. Although my heritage is Indian, I was born in the UK. I have visited India twice, once as a child and once in my early twenties. My recollections are broad brush strokes: the smell of street food, the sticky heat, the palaces in Jaipur, the imploring faces of child beggars pressed against cool taxi windows.

For the details for my novel, I turned to travel guides and photo books. Cousins of mine, who live in Mumbai have provided eye witness accounts. I’ve been watching Bollywood movies to get in the mood. The internet has saved me lots of time researching, or so I first thought, compared to the hours spent in dark libraries by previous generations. This, of course, it rubbish. Instead, it opens up as if it is a wormhole, an unfiltered surplus of information, causing hours to disappear with the click of my trackpad.

Photo by Daniel Lobo
Photo by Daniel Lobo

How easy it is to get sidetracked. Yesterday, I needed to know the dates Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister, and within moments I was drawn into the tragic glamour of the Gandhi family, history I once knew, but which had all but escaped through the sieve of my memory: Indira’s rise to power, the loss of her politically-minded younger son in a plane crash, convincing her elder son to run for parliament and setting him on the path to his assassination ten years later, her own murder, and how the wives of her dead sons are on opposing sides of the political spectrum in today’s India.

Later, I checked the meaning of a main character’s name: Soraya, taken from the Persian to mean ‘princess’. I found myself reading about Soraya, the Colombian-American singer songwriter, who died in 2006 at 37 years old from breast cancer. And Soraya, Princess of Iran, who married the King, the last Shah of Iran, at eighteen years old, and found she could not conceive. She refused to share her husband with another woman (the King could have had two wives), and they parted after seven years of marriage, both unwillingly, because he needed an heir. The King went on to remarry and have children. Princess Soraya moved to France after their parting and briefly became an actress. She met a new partner but succumbed to depression after he died. She was found dead in her Paris apartment in 2001 at the age of sixty-nine. Her younger brother commented at the time “after her, I don’t have anyone to talk to.” He died a week later.

Photo by Joel Bedford
Photo by Joel Bedford

Princess Soraya’s story reminded me that there are stories all around us, but she is not the Soraya of my novel, and I began thinking about how best to conduct research for fiction without getting distracted or doing too much. With so many avenues at our disposal to gather what we need to write credible stories – books, letters, internet, in person interviews, phone calls, movies, documentaries, museums, online forums, YouTube – how much research is the right amount?

Here are my tips:

Choose projects wisely. While you don’t always need to write what you know, if you are starting from scratch researching an intricate issue, know you’re on the back foot. Readers, agents, publishers are waiting for your next book. Don’t let a world’s worth of research be the reason you are keeping them waiting or your pockets empty

▪ Carry out background research to get you in the frame of mind for your characters, themes and settings is a good idea. Start with a small set of essential questions to keep you focused

Make a note of finer details to weave into your writing. Peppering your fiction with the odd detail will give your writing authenticity

Avoid hoovering up research and dumping it onto the page at all costs. You are writing fiction, not a history textbook

Don’t get sucked into the wormhole. If your words are flowing, mark missing information with an X and return to it later

Search for beta-readers within your subject realm to pick up on inconsistencies and breaks with reality

▪ Save in person jaunts to research your novel for times when your creative juices are running low. A timely visit to a museum or setting can get you out of a rut

▪ Sound the alarm bells when you notice you’re overindulging in research as an excuse to procrastinate

Employ the Iceberg Theory à la Ernest Hemingway, also known as the theory of omission. In other words, do your research, but prune your story so that you tell only what is essential. Trust the reader to understand what is implicit in your story

Develop a BS detector. This advice also comes from Hemingway, so it must be good. Get a feel for your topic, your characters, and assess your words for their measure of truth. Trust your gut

▪ Learning is admirable but there comes a time when you just need to sit your delicious bottom down and write

▪ You’re a fiction writer. Don’t forget it is your magic power to fake what you don’t know

How do you approach researching your fiction? Do you immerse yourself in the background to your story, or are you a fly by the pants type? Let me know in the comments. I love hearing from you. Happy writing, folks.

20 thoughts on “Fiction Writer’s Guide: How much Research is too much?

  1. I love reading you, anything by you. I’m so happy you decided to turn this into a novel. It’s a lovely, haunting story. Soraya and Akash are memorable characters. I can’t wait to see how this book unfolds.

    I picked up a few good tips here. Thanks, N!

    1. Thanks for stopping by Ms Jess West :). I feel like we’re hanging out at each other’s houses at the moment. The blogs, VWW, fantasy forum, fb & twitter are all different rooms. It’s brilliant :)

      So glad you enjoy my words. Right back atcha. And great having your eyes on this story as it moves forward x

  2. Thanks for this list Nillu.. very motivating for bench sitters like me who are thinking whether to write longer stories (i wouldnt say novel) or not. And absolutely loved that ‘ability to fake’ sentence.

  3. I agree, it is so easy to get absorbed into fascinating tidbits of information and get distracted from the job at hand: writing. Am trying to balance that better myself at the moment…

  4. Reblogged this on NoZzLe you and commented:
    i am very happy to read ur blog as always …….i just started to write a fiction which is my first ….so i hope i can get little guide from u …………and i look forward to it………thanks for u r time

  5. Great tips, Nillu. Too much research is also a problem I have encountered with my novel. Depending on what you’re writing, it can be worrisome to think that you’ve overlooked a key detail due to lack of research. But, yes, it’s too easy to get sucked in and lost and find yourself floating off on another tangent.
    Keep a tight reign on your research is a good tip.
    I also find that using an egg timer (or similar device) is a handy way to stay in track. For example set yourself 20 or 30 minute increments for research, and assess whether or not you’re making progress when timer sounds. Without the timer, it’s easy to lose track of time and consequently get lost in the research.

    1. Hi B, thanks for stopping by. In another universe I imagine us having this interaction in person nestled on a sofa with a cuppa in hand. Love your egg timer idea. I’ve been meaning to get one. One day soon we will do a novel swap :). Hope the new venture is going well. Love to you x

  6. All good advice, I especially like the point about Beta readers. I look things up as and when needed and then usually end up discovering wonderful other things I didn’t know which I’ve been able to write into my novel for authenticity! I have been known to go off down those wormholes too at those times! However, sometimes my most valuable research has happened quite by accident, for example when out and about at museums or in forests or visitor centres of various places. Depends which aspect of the novel of course. As there’s an historical element I’ve had to rely on my degree knowledge and use books and the Internet for that part, but I’ve not been averse to embellishing the facts slightly for the sake of fiction! :)

    1. Thanks JB, girl after my own heart that you are, you strike a fine balance. Accidental research is delicious. You know you’re in the zone when you’re out and about and everything seems to connect to your novel. Wonderful feeling. Can’t wait to read yours

  7. When I wrote a Western, I decided that if anyone was going to slag it off, it would be for the writing, and not for its historical accuracy, so I spent a long time checking when the railroad came to Arizona, what else was happening in the country at the time, when particular firearms came into common use, and so on. Most of it only gets the vaguest mention but I did feel like it helped me to get to know my protagonist, if nothing else. I do think research can be useful, but there comes a point where you have to say “enough” and stop tumbling down the rabbit hole! Now I write the bare bones of a story and do the research afterwards so I know exactly what it is that I’m looking for.

  8. Brilliant set of tips, and so timely for me now. Adding these to Pocket to keep and refer to! However — I did enjoy reading about the wormholes you went down. Nothing’s wasted. Maybe you’ll wake up one day inspired to write about them. It’s all in there, as I like to remind myself.

    1. Hi Tom, just checked out your post. Really interesting. You strike a fine balance between striving to be accurate, though acknowledging that there are bound to be factual errors. And it is fiction we write after all. On another note, great consistency of book covers between your titles. Makes you very recognisable. Best wishes, Nillu

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