When Does Researching Your Fiction Do More Harm Than Good?

Illustration for article titled When Does Researching Your Fiction Do More Harm Than Good?

Dean Wesley Smith, author of over 90 novels, has been publishing an irreverent, thought-provoking series about writing over at his blog, called “Killing The Sacred Cows Of Publishing.” Here’s one of the entries, about doing research before writing a novel.


Researching for a novel is one of what I call the half-truth myths. Yet I have known writer after writer that have had entire careers stopped cold by this myth. It takes a writer a certain time and distance to find the right half-way-point with research in novels.

So let me see if I can make some sense out of this.

Fact: Nonfiction writing requires you get it right, that you have your research done correctly in all ways and even documented correctly. No discussion on that at all. If you are writing nonfiction, research is not only a part of the process, it might be the most important part.

But this chapter, and all the chapters in this book, talk about fiction writing, and that’s where research jumps into the problem area. In fact, I was teaching a workshop with young professionals just this last week and this topic came up as a pretty solid roadblock for one of the writers. Of course, that writer was a full-time nonfiction writer and was carrying over the belief system into the fiction.

So let me repeat here clearly what I told that writer. If you have this myth issue, print this out as a big sign and put it over your computer.


Yup, I shouted that. Fiction, by its very definition is made up. Duh.

So now comes the really ugly word that I had to look up to spell right: Verisimilitude: An appearance of being true.


That’s the exact definition from my dear old Oxford American Dictionary.

So, in fiction, we writers make stuff up. I give my job description as a person who sits alone in a room and makes stuff up. But what I make up needs to have the appearance of being true, if not in detail, in character action and emotions. There is where the myth is true and not true.


In every story we need enough detail to make it feel right. That does not mean it has to be right, it just has to feel right.

Now details are easy when dealing with alien cultures in a science fiction novel, really hard when writing a period historical. No reader cares that you make up some gun or some uniform in space, as long as you make it seem logical to the society you are writing about. But historical readers who love certain historical time periods will care when you bring matches in a few decades too soon. Or heaven forbid have the wrong gun.


So why am I calling this a myth? For the simple reason that I have heard over and over and over young writers use this research myth as an excuse to not write. The statement goes something like this: “I can’t get to that story. I just have too much research to do.”

Of course, that writer never writes because every story that writer picks has too much research to do. That writer clearly isn’t a writer, but a researcher, and should realize that and go get a job doing what they love: researching.


Or, more likely, the person is afraid for one of many reasons to actually write, practice writing, and fail a number of times by finishing a story. And doing research sounds like such a noble excuse to tell your family and workshop. It’s safer than actually writing.

But if your dream is to be a fiction writer, sit down and make stuff up. Follow Heinlein’s Rules. It really is that simple.


Or, let it put it as bluntly as I can: Writers with the problem of never writing because of research have chosen to not write.


As with many things in writing, the answer is “It depends on the story you are writing.”


But I can safely say this after listening to other writers for decades on this topic and knowing my own patterns with research: You will almost always do too much.

Again, you just have to do enough to make it feel right to the large majority of your readers. And trust me, putting in all your research is mostly just dull. In fact, if you are getting feedback on stories that go “You have too many information dumps,” then you might want to try writing a story without any research. It might not be the problem, but often it is. We are all human. Once we do all that work on research and spend all that time, we want it in the book.


Truth: Most research you do does not belong in your story.

A general rule is to do just enough research to feel comfortable writing about the topic in a fiction story.



1…Write for the majority or readers, not a small faction. For example, when using a medical procedure, make it feel right, but don’t try to write for a MD who does the practice. That way lies madness, and you won’t get it right anyway. Write just enough so that it feels correct.


Another example is the CSI programs on television. Anyone who knows anything about lab techs in crime labs know they are not front-line detectives, but for the sake of fiction, the authors combined crime lab techs and detectives into one person to make interesting FICTION. They use cool machines that no city can afford in real life, and everything is done in minutes instead of months. But again, IT’S FICTION! And pretty good fiction, as far as story goes.

So stop writing for the minority and write for the majority of us who just like a good story told well.


2…If you need to do research to get it to feel right, do that while writing another story. I am often researching a project ahead of writing it, as I should if the story needs it. But does that mean I don’t write? Nope. I research one project while finishing up another. Therefore, research never gets in the way of writing.

3…You run across a detail you don’t know when writing. And say you can’t find it quickly, just leave a white space where the detail is needed and make a note to add it in when you run through with your detail draft. Then research it after you are done with the story.


4…Make it up and move on. Yup, I said that. It’s fiction, so if you don’t know something, pretend like you do, pretend like your character knows exactly what they are talking about, write it so it feels real (verisimilitude), and move on. 99% of your readers won’t notice and those that do notice aren’t really your readers.

5…Pick story ideas that don’t need research. Let me simply say, “Duh.” I am a master at this art. My wife has a degree in history. I have a degree in Architecture. Which one of us loves research would you assume? She is always doing research and often helps me when I need something quickly. She loves it. I try to pick stories that need no research for the most part. She likes doing research to feel comfortable in writing. I don’t need that comfort factor to the same degree as an historian would.


Back to what I have said in every chapter: Every writer is different.

I just recently finished a wonderful project set in Milwaukee, WI and the city and areas in the city were critical to the book. The editor on board lived there and offered to help with anything I needed about the city and I was constantly back and forth with him getting details on his wonderful city. In fact, a couple of times he had to go look at a neighborhood for me. So getting help is another clue, but I was writing and working on the book at the same time.


But again, try to find projects that don’t need research if research stops you from writing. It really is that simple.


Just to be clear, I am saying that some projects in fiction require some research and it needs to be done, but not all projects require research, so you should never, ever, let research stop your writing.


If you hear yourself say, “I can’t write this book until I do the research.” And you are not writing something, anything else, then this belief system of needing to do research is slowing you down or stopping you. And that’s when research in fiction turns into an ugly sacred cow. And why this chapter needed to be in this book.

When all else fails, just remember, IT’S FICTION!

This post by Dean Wesley Smith originally appeared on his blog.




If someone isn't writing, they're simply not a writer. I honestly see no reason to dissuade them from their procrastination. If they needed to do research, they would be doing research; if they SAY they need to do research, but don't do research, it's called an excuse. Don't get me wrong. I have plenty of excuses. From vacation to teaching to spending time with my wife to working out, etc. When all is said and done, though, only those that get past the excuses are really writers.

I'm reminded of Margaret Atwood comparing writing to ditch digging. I could write a book, says the person, and they're generally right. They COULD. Most people even have good ideas. It's just a lot of inglorious, lonely work and people give up.

As for the issue of research affecting the writing, an infodump is BAD, but doing the research is GOOD. A comparison would be those atrocious Clan of the Cavebear novels which unload reams and reams of research on the poor reader who's already had to slog through cheesy dialogue. The opposite would be The Inheritors, by William Golding, which is obviously based on research and bears it well, but it doesn't bog down the narrative explaining everything to the reader like they are a child and it simply informs the story.

I would rather authors do too much research, rather than too little (silly mistakes and incongruities can distract the reader from the narrative), but at the same time, I sincerely don't want them to prove it to me (give your editor your research notes if you want to, but delete them from your manuscript—I'm looking at you Neal Stephenson; Cryptonomicon is good, but I don't need you to actually explain cryptology methods in that much detail).