How Much Research Is Too Much?
I remember reading Dorothy L Sayers’ ‘The Nine Tailors’ and thinking, ‘Ms Sayers has definitely fallen into the research trap.’ The murder mystery requires a knowledge of campanology (bell-ringing), and is crucial the plot (there’s a cypher connected to change-ringing, and someone is deafened to death by bells) and although it’s a great novel she gives the research to us in vast undigested chunks.
SF writers often favour science over fiction, and Ted Chiang’s original short story ‘The Story of your Life’, which became the film ‘Arrival’, is a schematic piece structured like a dense equation. As such it is repetitive and to the layman periodically incomprehensible, filled with graphs and physics research. Hollywood did what it sometimes does best, humanizing the tale, sharpening it and giving it clarity without sacrificing the chamber-piece aesthetics. It’s a tricky act to pull off in SF, as ‘Interstellar’ proved. When critics ask why more hard SF classics aren’t filmed, the answer is that they don’t have a director who knows what to leave out.
As someone who is constantly asked how I manage to research so much history and arcane law, I explain that 1. I live next to the British Library, 2. I get lost in research but also talk to knowledgable people and 3. I’m naturally curious.
But I’ve fallen victim to the ‘research-dump’ in the past. It has taken me a very long time to develop the conversational style that imparts knowledge.
I now have a new problem, because next year’s Bryant & May novel, ‘Hall of Mirrors’, is set in 1969, a period during which I was still at school. I knew about ‘Swinging London’ only as a vague concept in magazines, and much of what I’ve read now contradicts those impressions. So where does the truth lie?
The rule must be that the writer must deviate from research when it starts to bore. We’re fiction writers – it means we can make stuff up, so long as it ameliorates the story and feels authentic.
Examples of books with lots of research, good or bad?