When reading a work of historical fiction, details like the kind of fabric a court jester wore to the actual streets your protagonist would have walked down can pull readers into your story — making them feel like they are really in your characters’ world.
But, sometimes an author’s enchantment with these tidbits of history can end up smothering a novel with facts. Soon, the story begins to feel more like a museum tour. How do you know what research should end up in your final draft — and what should stay in your notebook?
Here are 4 steps to trimming your research
1. Remove every bit of research from the scene.
Yes, I mean every bit! Put it all in a separate document, in the order in which you removed it.
2. Re-read what’s left of your scene.
Your research should enhance your story world, not replace it. If without research, you’re left with no action, no character insight, no advancement of story, no conflict, then all the research in the world is not going to make the scene work.
3. Ask yourself, “What is this scene about?”
Have you written Tolkien-length paragraphs that talk more about your character’s uniform than what it symbolically reveals about him? You might need to step back. Is this a love scene? Is it a scene of betrayal? Is it a scene where we discover something pivotal about the villain’s motives? The story of the characters should be driving it, with the research taking a back seat. If the point of the scene is not clear, rewrite the scene in a way that gives it life, and so that it is in service of the story.
4. Cherry-pick your research.
Go back to your research-only document and choose only those details that will enhance your scene. Be ruthless. Just because you spent two weeks researching doesn’t mean each discovery has to make it into your book.
Bottom line, research can be a great tool for orienting yourself to your book’s cultural context, for taking a break from writing without completely setting it aside, or for getting excited about your novel at the beginning stages.
But, remember: your priority is telling a story, not giving a lecture.