Posted in Writing

Why You Need to be Careful about Research in Your Fiction Writing


In his 2000 craft book On Writing, Stephen King says

We need to talk a bit about research, which is a specialized kind of backstory. And please, if you do need to do research because parts of your story deal with things about which you know little or nothing, remember that word back. That’s where research belongs: as far in the background and the backstory as you can get it.

Research can’t be ignored when it comes to your fiction writing.

I mean, I guess it can if every story or novel you write is about things you know everything about. If everything you write is sort of autobiographical and filled with moments and conflicts you see on a daily basis, then maybe you don’t have to research much.

But a lot of the time, research plays a key role in the writing process before you begin drafting your short story or novel. Certainly if there’s an element of your story you have no idea about, then you need to do some research.

Sometimes research is as easy as taking a half-hour or an hour online and just reading different articles. Next week I start a new young adult novel about a girl who has an allergy to water, so I’ve spent a few hours in the past week researching and taking notes about this very real allergy and how it has affected young people in recent years.

Sometimes research needs to go deeper, though. Sometimes you need to actually talk to somebody in the profession your main character has, for example. In 2015 I wrote a horror novel that includes a major character who’s a dentist. Right before starting that book I had a teeth cleaning and I spent more than ten minutes grilling my dentist with questions about what that instrument was and what would happen if this happened, so on and so forth.

Bottom line is that if you need to do research to make the book better, and to make the book makes sense, there’s no good reason not to do it.

On the other hand, you do need to be careful about research when it comes to your fiction writing.

Why careful, exactly? Two reasons.

First, you could make research an excuse to never write your story or novel. You could spend months and months researching to the point of excess. When your writer friends ask what you’re working on, you can say, “I’m researching for the new novel, it’s going well, I’m learning a lot of fascinating things!”

This isn’t good. When you’re spending more time researching than actually writing, you’re essentially wasting your time.

Take a week or two to research your next book or story, that’s fine. But the research should end at a certain point, and the writing should begin.

The second reason you need to be careful?

Research should always stay as far in the background as possible in your fiction writing.

Stephen King is absolutely right: as soon as you start showing off your research and littering that information you found all over your manuscript, whether it’s in description or thoughts or dialogue of your featured characters, you’re making wrong choices.

A little bit of research on the page is okay. In my new novel, there will be passages where the lead female character tells the lead male character about her allergy to water and how it started and what happens to her when water touches her skin. The lead character is a journalist, and he’s interested, and many readers will be interested, too. So I’m going to go there a little bit.

What you should be most concerned with, however, is telling a compelling story, and making sure the characters and conflict and growing tension take center stage, not the research you did before you started writing.

Research is definitely important in your fiction writing, but it should never replace the writing itself, and it should always, always, always stay as far in the background as possible.

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