Our guest today is Aimie K. Runyan, author of historical fiction that highlights previously uncelebrated contributions of women in key moments in history. Her first novel Promised to the Crown comes out in April. She loves travel, music, and books above almost all things. She lives in Colorado with her husband and two children.
As a historian, I love digging through the archives and finding new and untapped sources for my books, but I know how hard it is to limit your findings when crafting a novel. I hope to help authors learn how to incorporate all their fun facts deftly in their stories to make them even more compelling.
Research is the Spice of Life
It doesn’t matter what genre of fiction you write, chances are you will have to research at least a few details throughout the course of writing your novel. It can be time consuming, and the material you find can be overwhelming. Worse, when the details you uncover are used inexpertly, it can bog down your writing.
Think of your novel as an entrée and your research as the spices (I love to cook, so bear with the food metaphors). Some dishes require a lot of spice. In this case, historical fiction is like Jambalaya—it requires a lot of spice. The reader may only have a cursory understanding of the time and place, and you have to research nearly every detail of daily life to fully build your world. Other dishes, like a lovely beef tenderloin require less, or you’ll overpower the inherent flavor. Think contemporary fiction, romance, women’s fiction, and the like where the reader has first hand experience with the life and times of your characters. Research might be limited to specialty information pertaining to a character’s career or city where they live, for example. A lot of dishes, say a marinara sauce, are somewhere in the middle. I like to think mystery, thriller, and sci-fi fall here. You may need to do some extensive research on a scientific concept or a type of weapon, but a lot of the details of your world may need less explanation.
The trick is knowing how to use the spice with a steady hand.
The first rule is the most important: don’t use more spice than the dish calls for. (Choose carefully which details to include.) If we don’t need to know all the details of the manufacturing of the murder weapon in your mystery, don’t include them. It is *so* tempting to use every detail you find. You work hard on your research, and you want to use it. But needless details are needless words, and we all know what to do with those.
Use spice to do more than enhance the taste; make your dish smell, look, and feel as appealing as it tastes. (Use your research to appeal to a variety of senses.) The tendency is to focus on the visual, but research can help us develop a more three-dimensional image of the worlds we create. Get in the kitchen and make food your characters would eat. How does it taste, smell, feel on the tongue? Go to the fabric store and run your fingers over the silks or rough-hewn wools your character would have worn. Writing a murder mystery? Get to the range and fire off the murder weapon a few times. Know what the recoil feels like and watch others fire the weapon as well.
Don’t limit yourself to the same one or two spices. (Get your research from a variety of sources). Print resources are the first thing that comes to mind when we think of research, and I find myself tied to the same one or two secondary sources that I like on a topic. In the Information Age, we have videos, access to old news archives, and forums upon forums to ask for new and exciting places to unearth material. Be creative.
Don’t forget to think of your dinner guests. (Keep your audience in mind). What do they know and how much detail do they *want* to know about your topic? If this is a military thriller with huge appeal to veterans and historians, they may want a lot of detail. If you’re writing a historical romance where the love story is of central importance, rather than the setting, then you only need to add in the information that makes your world believable. (Caveat: even if the historical setting isn’t the primary focus of your book, that is no excuse for inaccuracies. Check your facts!)
Mix all your ingredients well! (Don’t let research show up in giants clumps in your writing). Just as no one wants a huge bite of pepper, even in Jambalaya, no one wants a massive passage of technical information in the middle of a thriller. One taught sentence about shoes in 16th century Lithuania can be intriguing. A paragraph is lethally boring.
Keeping these tips in mind as you incorporate research in your novel will go a long way to creating a work that effectively balances facts, data, and interesting tidbits with the all-important story you want to tell. And don’t worry about all those fascinating finds you found, but can’t use in your book. You now have a wealth of information to share on Facebook, Twitter, and your author blog that will help grow your online presence and establish you as an expert in your field—and there’s always your next book.
How have you incorporated research into your writing? Do you prefer mild or spicy? What tidbits can you share?