Saturday, January 21, 2017

Is there such a thing as too much research?

“The greatest part of a writer's time is spent in reading, in order to write: a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” - Samuel Johnson

One of my friends posted on Facebook recently asking if there was such a thing as too much research.  I believe, as did another friend of hers, that there's no such thing as too much research, but don't let it bog your story down with the minutia when a few words on the subject might do.  There's a line in the movie 'Wonder Boys' that came to mind when I saw her post where a student of the protagonist, who is a struggling writer, comments on the detail he's included in his story.  She goes on to say:

"And even though you're book is really beautiful, I mean, amazingly beautiful, it's... it's at times... it's... very detailed. You know, with the genealogies of everyone's horses, and the dental records, and so on. And... I could be wrong, but it sort of reads in places like you didn't make any choices. At all."

I couldn't agree more, it's all about making choices.  I think every writer likely overindulges in their research, but how much of that research makes it into your work could mean the difference between boring your reader or enhancing your story.

I remember when I wrote Deep Blue Sea I needed to learn everything I could about tall ships during the Napoleonic Wars.  There was a particular passage where Captain Thorne is conducting his pre-sailing inspection and is discussing an issue regarding the bilge pump.  Now, if you read the passage, I may have a single sentence describing the apparatus, but I'll admit I probably spent about four or five hours researching and looking at diagrams just so I understood how they worked and what sorts of repairs they might require.  And I'd bet most of my readers paid little to no attention to that tidbit, but I knew I enhanced my story versus bogging it down by including only a passing remark about it.

With my current book, I'm delving into some fascinating topics.  The story takes place in Regency London and since my stories tend toward the darker, seedy side of history, so does my research.

For instance, opium was commonly used as mild pain relief, which led to many becoming addicted to the euphoric side-effects.  People of the time knew how damaging and addictive qualities of the drug as is described in the autobiographical account 'Confessions of an English Opium-Eater' by Thomas De Quincey published in 1821, though many of his contemporaries criticized his language for not portraying the darker truths of the drug, instead romanticizing its effects.

Grave robbing was yet another dark truth of the time.  Because physicians were only allowed to examine corpses of executed criminals for medical research, they would employ resurrection men to rob the graves of the freshly dead.  Not enough criminals were being executed in London to meet the demands, so doctors would pay these men quite handsomely for a constant supply.  Don’t forget, refrigeration was not what it is today, so the corpses would only last so long before decomposing.  Of course these resurrection men were loathed by the people of the time so families who could afford to went to great lengths to ensure their loved ones were protected in death from desecration. If you ever have a chance to visit Scotland's Greyfriars Cemetery you'll see evidence of their efforts. Over several of the graves there are mortsafes, or iron cages enclosing the casket so robbers can't dig up the corpse.  Honestly, I’ve always been fascinated by cemeteries, I could devote an entire blog post to them.

In my research of prostitution during the Regency Era I've discovered that many of women came from good upbringings but were either outcast by their families or had none to support them.  Few choices were available to women of the time, and for many years before and after, so prostitution was for some the only way they could survive.  For the customers, lists of the ladies were available which described a little about them and sometimes services they were willing to provide.  I managed to get my hands on a reprint of one of these called ‘Harry’s List of Covent Garden Ladies’ which has a wealth of information.

All in all, research can both enlighten and entertain a writer, but it's important to know how much is too much when creating a world for your reader.

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