Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Pardon me, but your research is showing ...

We've all read them, those books where the writers have done their research on something -- fish farming in South Australia/hang gliding in the Himalayas/the life cycle of the lesser spotted warbler -- and are determined that the reader will know every scrap of what they found out.

I've tried to read a number of top-of-the-range thrillers and been put off by the high level of interest in the working of guns and computer crime -- but I must be in the minority, because these things sell by the bag load. I suspect, with the thriller, it may be a case of toys for the boys.

I don’t much care for the current trend for books that describe in loving detail all that happens on the autopsy table either, but again, that’s me, because they are very popular and successful.

Is the point where research becomes intrusive a matter of taste? I think it may be. I know that I am more likely to be interested in a description of the moon rising over Capri than I am the detailed working of the internal combustion engine. Sometimes there are points too where the author doesn't give you quite enough. I get particularly irritated when the heroine gives a dinner party, and I don't get a blow by blow account of the food served. But I've been told off by those critiquing my work for including too much detail about what everyone ate. Maybe the person doing the critique was on a diet at the time?

There seem to be fashions in what should and shouldn't be included. I've begun to suspect that there is a how-to book circulating out there somewhere, which suggests that to add authenticity to your manuscript you need detailed accounts of the routes used by your characters while travelling. I've lost count of the number of books in which I’ve waded through lists of street names and numbers, while the hero crosses Chicago/Manchester/Sydney. If I wanted a route, I’d get a map! Music is another of my little quibbles. References to groups I've never heard of add nothing to the story for me, and in fact can lift me out of it. I freely admit though that I know more about Leonard Cohen than I do about Coldplay, so again it’s a matter of taste.

Many writers will tell you how seductive research can be -- chasing up that elusive fact can be a lot more interesting than bashing the keyboard -- and you can always tell yourself that you are actually working. You can understand the desire to pack it all in somewhere. But in the case of research, less really can often be more.

Research, when it's done well, and included with discretion, can be a joy. A subtle way of learning something you didn't already know. I don't want to point fingers, and name names, because I do think that what you get from a book depends a lot on what you bring to it, but I would be interested to know what others feel is their research threshold. What are the details that make you love/loathe a book?

Research will no doubt be one of the topics covered at the Romantic Times Booklovers convention in Pittsburgh, now only just over a week away. Five of the Title Magicians will be there, so if you see us, please say hello. And of course the winner of American Title IV will finally be revealed …


Trish Milburn said...

Good post, Evonne. And you're right -- I've read those info-dumping books where there's almost a flashing light pointing to the page that says, "Author's extensive research shown here. Pay attention. Learn something." :)

Savanna Kougar said...

Wonderful discussion on this topic, Evonne. Sometimes I'm a research hound, just because I enjoy learning.
However, when I read a story, I want the story, the people, not ten tons of info which really has nothing to do with the dynamics going on between the characters.
Unless a character is working on a combustion engine, forget about it!!!
But, that's just me.
Hey all, enjoy, enjoy, enjoy. Think of all the great posts Title Magic will get from you all attending the RT convention.

Lexie O'Neill said...

I'm chiming in late--my son took my computer last night to do homework, of all the nerve.
I do agree it's a matter of taste. In the Outlander series, the herb info and the history were fascinating to me. Perhaps there's something to be said about information that is integral to the story. Other than that, I echo, forget about it!

Mel Hiers said...

Hey, Evonne! Great post!

The mapquest impression bugs me as well. Some readers really seem to get a kick out of it if they live in the city in which the story's set, though. Although if a writer gets it wrong, God help him! :-P

I'm definitely the less is more type when it comes to description. I frequently find myself thinking, "I don't care what the dress looks like, just get on with it!" and I tend to write the same way. Although I really have to restrain myself when I'm working with myths. My Inner Infodumper tends to go overboard there.

Anitra Lynn McLeod said...

I LOVE this topic and I am so sorry that I am so late! I just read Q is for Quarry by Sue Grafton and she had way too much detail that detracted from the story. I honestly love her work and her perennial character but the details bogged down the tale. (But it was still good and I recommend her if you like mysteries with a strong female lead.)

I found this same "detail" problem with another novel (I won't mention the name) but I felt like I was reading a travel loge. Honestly, do I need to know the name of every street? It just felt like "LOOK at all my research! If you go there, you can follow these directions!"

Ya, okay, but I don't want to go there. I want to feel the place but all the niggling little details don't paint the picture--they bore me.

But hey, I'm not knocking it. For all I know their editor told them to put those details there. (Er, I always take the side of the writer)

I guess I'm more of a hit the highlights and move on writer/reader but some readers really LIKE those details.

To each their own but I could live without them. :)