What to Include and How Much?


I write a lot of different genres, and some of my favorite ones are the ones where I make up worlds of my own. I can do or have anything happen in these worlds. I can toss the rules out the window. I also love to write stories that take place in the past. The medieval era is one of my favorite times and I can toss a few rules out when dabbling in the past as well.
But there are times when research is essential, no matter where or when the tale takes place. For instance, the Bayou Magiste Chronicles all take place in an alternate version of modern-day New Orleans and the surrounding area. Since the location is real, I need to make sure I am up to speed on the modern culture, the history of the city and the general flavor of the area. In the Warrior’s books, the research needs to be a bit more in-depth. Since there are real historical figures as supporting characters in these books, the facts need to be accurate.
Over the years, I’ve learned how to sprinkle the realism in with the fantasy. When I first started writing in the medieval era many eons ago, I was anxious to show how much I knew about the period, so I crammed in so many details around every event in the book that the darn thing ended up well over 120K words! I read and bought every book I could get my hands on about the area I was writing about, the people I was including and the general way of life of the time. I have a lovely library of books about the Middle Ages up to Elizabethan times.
Then the internet dawned and everything changed. For one thing, it was easier to buy all those research books online. For another, websites dedicated to every possible person, place and time popped up all over. I didn’t have to go to the book store or pore through mountains of books to find the fact I knew I had but couldn’t remember where I got it from. And I didn’t have to wait until the next day when I was writing after midnight and needed a critical piece of information. Of course, this created a whole new distraction.
It’s so easy to get caught up in research – the books were bad enough. I could spend hours reading through them, highlighting and flagging pages with places to refer back to later on. But the internet… I could spend DAYS clicking on links and uncovering new details and off I go to another site, then another, then another. Next thing you know, two hours of valuable writing time is gone. Oh, but wait, there’s one more place I need to look… poof! Another three hours gone.
I finally had to stop. I came up with a way to keep my focus on the story – mark the place in the book where I needed to confirm something and move on. Finish the scene, chapter, whatever it was that needed to get done. Then, and only then, look up the fact(s) that needed clarification. They can be added in or adjusted during revisions and future edits.
The other dilemma is determining how many of the facts to include. Too much and it’s overkill, not enough, and you can’t tell 1284 England from modern day U.S. Striking that balance can be difficult – it’s so easy to get caught up in adding everything you know. Setting the stage is one thing, piling mountains of monotonous details will send that stage crashing right down.
It’s the same thing with the BDSM aspects. When writing paranormal or historical BDSM-themed books, today’s standards and protocols don’t always apply. There are no such things as safewords in medieval Scotland and Wales (not that I’ve found, anyway and believe me, I looked!), but there sure as hell is bondage and spanking, multiple partners and the like. On other planets, where the culture revolves around submissive women and dominating men, again, the general rules don’t apply. That doesn’t mean there aren’t certain guidelines or standards to apply, they’re just different from what us Earthlings know.
Creating all these different situations requires a different kind of research – brainstorming. I am a firm believer that plotting and planning is research, just as much as looking something up in a book or online. A basic knowledge of our own world is enough to start the creation of another, but the details of that world still need to be spelled out clearly. Which circles right back around again to how much should be included? You want the reader to get a real visual for your world, whether it’s a time long ago, or a place on a distant planet, but you don’t want to bog it down with too many details.
Striking the balance is something I’ve learned to do much better these days, though, with each book, when I get to the final edits, I always find something in there that I have way over-killed, or even under-killed! Usually, it’s the former – I am a bit too wordy for my own good. And like all writers, every word is near and dear to me, cutting them out is like picking yourself with a needle. Over and over and over again.
I have learned to be ruthless – while some information is fascinating, and usually spurs the hunger to learn even more, sometimes it’s best just to address whatever facts there are lightly. The key, I think, is to let the characters, by their words and actions, reflect the historical data such as the laws and culture of the time, or inter-planetary customs in a galaxy far away, or even when two people, one magical, one not, interact.
At least, that’s the goal. I like to think I’ve gotten better at reducing the fat, and getting right to the meat of the story. Now if I could do that with myself! lol
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