Sunday, February 05, 2006

Story Research

What's the right amount of research for a story?

There have been times when I've read entire textbooks in order to write a
single short story. Other times I've based stories around a single piece of
trivia that I stumbled upon purely by accident.

How do I decide which approach to take? Well, obviously a big factor is my own laziness but there are other considerations.

Some stories need to be grounded in facts. The reader will expect me to prove that I know what I'm talking about. Other times I'll take a chance and skimp on detail because I'm dealing with such a well-known topic that it's pretty much guaranteed that the reader will already possess all the background info they need. Well, that's the theory anyway.

Of course even if technical details do need to be used in a story it's usually
best to use a light touch. I try not to overwhelm the reader with jargon but I still try to use the terms as accurately as possible. Hopefully readers who don't understand the technical terms will thank me for not making them sit through huge chunks of techno-babble whilst readers who know a little about the subject will recognise that I've used the terms in the correct context and will use their own knowledge to fill in the gaps.

Unfortunately it's not always possible to reserch a topic as thoroughly as I would like. Sometimes I just can't find the information I'm looking for. And even when research material is readily available that still doesn't mean I necessarily get the chance to fully appreciate it. After all, any given subject -- be it quantum physics, politics, philosophy or whatever -- is too vast to be fully understood by any one person. There are so many tiny wrinkles, seemingly inconsequential details that turn out to have a bearing on fundamental issues, that even the most intensive research will still only cover a tiny fraction of the chosen topic. Consequently I often feel after conducting research that I only learned enough about a subject to realise that I really don't know anything about it.

Story length is another big factor. If I'm writing a 3,000 word story I can't afford to spend 2,500 words explaining how a jet engine works or detailing the intricacies of the human genome.

Impending deadlines also dictate the amount of research I do. If a story needs to be handed in by the following morning then finding out if the heroine's hairstyle is historically authentic tends to go out the window.

And finally, this may sound obvious but to me the point of a story is to be a story. If the research is getting in the way then it's usually best if I cut it out. If I absolutely have to prove to the world that I've done the research I'm probably better off writing a non-fiction piece instead.

So basically the right amount of research is the amount that makes the story work.

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