The Craft: Research, How Much Is Too Much?

[This is part of a continuing series on the art of writing fiction.]

I’m trying to get the balance right between research and writing. One thing I don’t want to do when writing fiction is research too much.sketch

The other day, I read an interview with Tom Stoppard, the playwright. I haven’t been able to track down the exact one again. But the important point was: can one over-research before sitting down to write a story? Is there  a point where you should be begin writing before you know too much about a given topic? In the final analysis, Tom says yes, you shouldn’t wait to become a total expert, but dive in.

Now, I’ve written my fair share of stories in historical settings. And the question is: where do you stop? I don’t know the exact answer, but I do know you can overdo the research. You have to go into a work still a bit ignorant about it. You must choose the difficult middle path.

Over-research or over-plot your story/book and you risk making it stale. You’ll sit down to write and have nothing to say, it’s almost like you’ve written yourself out. Written the idea out. On the other hand, research too little, plot too little and you could soon lose yourself in a trackless forest of options and alternatives. There’s nothing to guide you back to the kernel of the story. And your world’s details are flawed or inaccurate.

So, when do you put the research down and begin in earnest? As always, there’s no hard and fast rule, you just have to make a gut decision. Right now, I think of it like a sketch of the human body. You want to have the skeleton and its position complete in your mind, but you don’t need all the organs in place or the skin. You just need a basic idea of how the thing will look on the page. That’s not to be dismissive of research or world-building, but you have to know when it’s time to stop and begin to write.

Everyone will have their limit for this, my only point is there is a danger in doing too much research, too much plotting, too much thinking. Your research and plotting has to be a foundation. The story itself is the building. When the foundation looks good, you have to start putting the walls in place. And in a writing a story, the writer is the only one who can make that call. It’s your world, writer, you have to build it.

Good luck and see you next time,

DJ