How Much Research Is Enough?

by jeanineoloughlin

Thinking Through My Fingers

“Writing, to me, is simply thinking through my fingers.” – Issac Asimov

As someone who likes to write science & historical fiction there are often times when I need to do some research to bring some accuracy to the story. How much research time I put into a piece will depend on the length of the piece and the prominence of the piece. For example a one-off short story I’ll research just enough to get the vibe right but make up a lot of the details. On the other hand if it’s a series or a novel length piece I’ll spend a significant amount of time getting the history or the science correct. Sources I use for my research are mostly the internet but also I’ll seek out documentaries, specialized blogs, or books and articles if I still don’t feel I have a solid grasp on the information I’m seeking. This can take a considerable amount of time, but it’s so important to make a story feel real, especially if it’s a historical fiction piece.

Historical fiction is where I find research is needed most, and I have to keep as much of the true known history in tact. However, where the historical record has speculation or hazy views is where I find I can take the story into the fictional/fantasy realm. Ancient history is particularly great for this since so much of the historical record is still missing or unclear. This is sad for the history books, and the inner archaeologist in me, but wonderful as a writer as these gaps are where I feel the freedom to go hog-wild. By keeping the hard facts the same I feel it seats the story into history itself allowing the reader to really feel like they’re seeing into another place in time.

Science fiction is such a broad genre these days that it really depends on the story to determine if and how much research I need to do. Typically if I’m dealing with a hard science I will do enough research to ensure my terminology is correct, but allow myself to stray from the current state of science just enough to help bring my story into another world. Again I’m trying to seat my story just enough in reality to make it believable to the reader but not enough to corner myself into writing an encyclopedia article rather than an interesting narrative.

There’s a delicate balance between including good real world research and developing your fanciful narrative. It’s something that I will focus a lot on during edit passes and ask myself if the story is becoming too dry or if I’m giving the reader enough information to make it feel believable. There’s no hard rule but for my style of writing I would say I write 60-70% fictional and 30-40% fact when it comes to my historical or hard science narratives. The lighter the science the more narrative and less fact is involved.

Happy Writing!