Readers expect non-fiction writers to conduct extensive research: checking facts, adding to what they already know about their topic, and documenting their statistics. What many readers don’t realize is the amount of research fiction writers do as well.
We’d look pretty silly if our princess entered her British mansion built of clapboard. While my good friend, fellow critique group member, and award winning author Pamela Mingle made numerous visits to England, and even toured Hoghton Tower, the setting for her magnificent time-travel novel KISSING SHAKESPEARE, she also did a tremendous amount of research on sixteenth-century England. Such research was necessary to accurately portray the tension between Catholics and Protestants during that time, the persecutions that took place, even to know whether the church then would have been equipped with chairs or pews.
In my recent middle grade novel, CHANGING TIDES, currently out for submission, I created a fictional town, Sefton Beach, located on the southern coast of Florida. One benefit to creating your own town is that you can construct the layout in ways to better fit your story, but southern Florida isn’t fictional and I can’t just throw in plants and animals that couldn’t survive in that climate. I did a lot of research on the habitat of the area. I even traveled the coastline, making detailed notes that I may or may not use in my novel. And there lies the dilemma. Details add depth to your setting, but too much detail may have the reader saying the same thing a member of my critique group said to me…”Your research is showing.” The protagonist in my story is a twelve-year-old girl, Missy, who is infatuated with sharks and has done much of her own reading on the topic. The trick for me was to show her interest and her knowledge without going overboard with the shark research I’d done. Most fictional writers will tell you that only a small fraction of the information they’ve gleaned through hours and hours of research actually finds its way into the story.
As a recovering professional researcher with a background in technical writing, this has been one of my biggest challenges, but I’m beginning to get the hang of it. Detail shouldn’t sound forced. Don’t put it in just because you want your reader to know how smart you are. It has to fit (and contribute to) the setting, the story, and/or the character, and it must flow naturally in the scene, otherwise it will jar the reader out of the story. So do your research, but use it wisely.