Is Your Research Showing? 4 Ways to Know

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.


15 comments on “Is Your Research Showing? 4 Ways to Know

  • These are very valuable step-by-step self editing tips. Do you have any insights on whether or not we should hire a historian (or expert) to comb through these passages of thick detail, or is an editor okay? Either way, very interesting post. I have never read these Anne Boleyn chronicles but now I am eager.

    • Lahtika, I am a published novelist who was fortunate enough to find a knowledgeable editor who specified in the historical fiction genre. I definitely understand your concern to hire a historian to double-check the facts in a work of fiction.

      There are many resources out there that will point you in the direction of an editor who will help you in these specific ways. For one, I recommend you to purchase Jeff Herman’s Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents. It’s a sensational resource, as it is chock full of all the information you could hope for. Good luck!

  • I am an author who has taken a great deal of classes and seminars on specifically historical fiction and these tips are a great supplement to those lessons that I’ve really taken to heart. It may be historical, but it is still a story. Bottom line.

  • Is it an appropriate device to have a character physically/actually give a lecture at a college, or show a friend around a museum? Is that too heavy handed? Perhaps it all comes down to putting a passage aside and reading it with fresh eyes. Or, hiring an editor of course! I will see. I shall study these tips with vigor.

  • I love this post. Obvious research will throw me right out of a novel. I’m an Anne Boleyn obsessinator and The Other Boleyn Girl was utter fiction based on real live characters and events. It was the fact that the author turned history on its head that won me over. A great fantasy. If she’d shown her research it would have been one more speculative Anne Boleyn story.

  • I love the line “Soon, it’s sounding more like a museum tour than a plot unfolding.” Such a fan of that.

    I’m also really happy to see you referenced Gregory’s book. I’m going to pick it up and reread it to pinpoint exactly what you mean here. Very inspiring.

  • I am such a fan of this post! I’ve always felt like whenever I add facts and figures, it really weighs down the scene. Makes it very clunky. Your advice to stick to only the MOST meaningful and intriguing details is wonderful. Thank you Diane!

  • Your advice to stop and “Ask yourself: What is this scene all about?” is something I’ve been striving to do more and more throughout the editing process. I’m working on a present-day thriller, so the genre is a bit different from what you talk about here, but all of the elements are the same. It involves a lot of dedicated research. There’s the tendency to fill your book to the seams with fun facts in an effort to tell yourself all of those hours at the library or on Google were worth it. All the more reason to slow down.

  • Personally, I’ve found Steven James’ thriller novels to incorporate research in a way that isn’t overwhelming. I recommend them. Just food for thought.

    • Hello,

      I’m personally a big fan of James’ work, so I’m glad to see you mention him! This is a great suggestion; James brings complex FBI protocol into stories in a way that is fascinating, not overwhelming.


  • This is quite conducive to the project I am tackling at the moment. It is a thriller set in a violin maker’s shop in 1600s Cremona, Italy. Talk about hitting the books! I know so much about violin making, the Italian language, and what life was like during that time that it is indeed challenging for me to know gush onto the page. My editor has been very helpful with this, but I also agree that there is much to say about stepping back and honing one’s self editing skills. I shall print this blog and use it as a reference.

    • I’m so thrilled to know that you are not only finding this post helpful, but that it’s aiding you with what certainly sounds like a fascinating project. Do let us know how it turns out. Happy Writing!

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