Staggering Research

A novelist who undertakes the study of a bygone era can amass reams of historical data by the time she sits down to write the first draft. This endeavor is pursued for several basic reasons. The first is to get her facts straight. Dirt roads were the norm until the 19th century, for instance. The second is to immerse herself in the mores, beliefs, etc., of the era. This study may well govern how the author first imagines the characters as well.

The idea of exploring the details of a new realm in order to bring it to life explains why so many novels begin with copious amount of research about the chosen time period. Scene setting is required, for sure. A brougham was more suited for certain purposes and a cabriolet for others, to continue the previous example. Yet research can also serve as the author’s opening wedge in general. Cold, hard facts are easier to relate than what the main characters of that bygone era are feeling.

When you consider that an author of any type of novel learns more about his featured characters as he keeps writing, the reasoning of the historical writer becomes clearer. Research falls more to the wayside as the author-character bond grows. This reaches a height by the end of an early draft of a manuscript.

Yet when an author begins to edit the book, that opening section will still be clogged up with research. One of the tasks of the editing round(s) is to examine how what is written affects the reader. Many authors are loath to cut what they’ve already written. It’s perfectly good material, goes the thinking.

So it is. The question is, does it all have to be front-loaded? In terms of writing imperatives, the need to create dynamic characters that will pull the reader into the tale far outweighs scene setting. I often see this imperative followed in a first chapter and maybe another one or two. But soon enough the early chapters become freighted with the full details of some arcane ritual, such as fashioning spoked wooden wheels. The author just can’t help herself. Even worse, she may be using the research to hide the fact that she didn’t know her characters very well back then.

You have to be willing to rip apart research to suit the characters’ needs. If you think about the matter, you’ll realize that a reader that is really interested in a nonfiction topic will . . . read a nonfiction book. Just like you did. A novel is educational to an extent, by inference, but it better entertain us first.

Exercise: Review the first 100 pages of the manuscript, looking for blocks of research. Could you extract certain details from a patch and place them later on? If you have a series of patches, could several of them move later in the book? In general, think lite. The reader only needs the lite version.

“Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school.”
—Albert Einstein

Copyright @ 2018, John Paine

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