April 18th to the 24th: “Research. How much is enough?”

Research. How much is enough? How do you know which facts to include and which to leave out? Join ITW Members J. H. Bográn, Joe Moore, Marianna Jameson, Anna DeStefano, Matt Lynn, CE Lawrence and Dorothy McFalls as they discuss their approach to research.

J. H. Bográn, born and raised in Honduras, is the son of a journalist; he ironically prefers to write fiction rather than fact. José is the author of TREASURE HUNT, the first in the series of a professional thief that goes by the handle of The Falcon. Other works include short stories, contributor to The Big Thrill magazine, co-screenwriter for two TV serials and movie reviews for Honduran newspaper La Prensa.

Joe Moore is the co-author, along with Lynn Sholes, of the award-winning Cotten Stone thriller series: The Grail Conspiracy, The Last Secret, The Hades Project, and The 731 Legacy. Their newest thriller, The Phoenix Apostles, will be released June, 2011. Their novels have been translated into over 20 languages including Russian, Greek and Chinese. He is also a marketing & communications executive and two-time EMMY® winner with 25 years experience in the television postproduction industry. He has written articles for national and international trade magazines covering the field of professional sound recording and video. As a freelance writer, he reviewed fiction for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Florida Times Union, and the Tampa Tribune. Joe serves on the International Thriller Writers board of directors as Co-President. He writes full time from his home in South Florida.

Anna DeStefano is the best selling author of romantic suspense for Harlequin and Silhouette and contemporary psychic fantasy for Dorchester Publishing. She’s won and finalled in numerous national contests, including twice winning the Romantic Times Reviewers Choice Award. She teaches craft workshops across the country and blogs regularly about both her writing experience and the fascination with metaphysics and parapsychology that led her to create her psychic-based Legacy Series. For more information, please visit Anna’s blog.

C.E. Lawrence is the byline of a New York-based suspense writer, performer, composer and prize-winning playwright whose previous books have been praised as “lively. . .” (Publishers Weekly); “constantly absorbing. . .” (starred Kirkus Review); and “superbly crafted prose” (Boston Herald). Silent Screams and Silent Victim are the first two books in her Lee Campbell thriller series.  Silent Kills comes out later this year.  Her other work is published under the name of Carole Bugge.

Matt Lynn is the author of a best-selling series of military thrillers, featuring a group of special forces soldiers working for a Private Military Corporation. ‘Death Force’ was published in 2009, ‘Fire Force’ in 2010, and ‘Shadow Force’ will be out in 2011. He is currently working on ‘Ice Force’, which will be out in 2012. Interviews and free short story can be found on his website.

New York Times bestselling author Marianna Jameson writes both contemporary romance novels and high-tech, eco-political thrillers. She spent twenty years as a technical writer and editor in the software, aerospace, and defense industries and keeps her feet wet and her imagination churning by freelancing in the corporate security and intelligence worlds. Her next book, DRY ICE, will be released in August 2011 by Tor/Forge. For more information about Marianna and her books, visit her website.

Dorothy McFalls resides in an artsy beach community in South Carolina with her sexy sculptor husband and their papillon pup (Iona) and mischievous kitten (Suki). An environmental urban planner by profession and wildlife biologist by education, she gave up her day job to devote her time to writing in 2001. She writes romantic adventure fiction, Regency romances, and short stories.

ITW

International Thriller Writers Inc represents professional authors from around the world. Learn more about them, their work, and the sources from which they draw their inspiration at the Official ITW Organization Website.

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35 Comments
  1. If I’m the first to post, let me welcome you to this week’s ITW Roundtable. The question we’ll be discussing is “Research. How much is enough? How do you know which facts to include and which to leave out? “

    This question is one that always haunts me during the writing process. I have an angel who sits on one shoulder whispering in my ear, “Really, you’ve done enough. Just write.” while the devil on the other shoulder whispers, “Are you sure you can’t find just a little more on that subject?”

    I’m a research geek and calling a halt to the research phase of a project is as easy as swearing off ice cream in summer. In other words, it’s usually only a temporary measure. “Enough” is never enough for me until deadlines start to loom large on my horizon.

    I find that I manage to find that sweet spot called “Enough” when I start to encounter the same sources and the same data over and over in my searches. As soon as I notice a diminishing rate of return on the investment of my energy in terms of finding new information, I know it’s time to put the topic to use and start writing. But the research process continues in some fashion up to the minute the final page proofs leave my hands and head back to the editor. There’s always one more question lingering in my head, which means there’s room for one more detail in the book….

  2. Welcome to the research roundtable. For me, doing research is a lot like digging for buried treasure. It’s the excitement of uncovering tidbits and morsels of fact that add seasoning and spice to the story. It’s a chance to take my readers to places they may never have been before. And it’s an opportunity to pull back the curtain just enough to share a “secret”.

    My books (co-written with Lynn Sholes) are globetrotting apocalyptic thrillers. Major portions have taken place in exotic countries like North Korea, Ethiopia, Peru, Iraq, Cuba and Moldova. The stories have ventured into mysterious locations like the Paris catacombs, the Kremlin, the Vatican Secret Archives, Anasazi ruins, medieval castles, the Amazon rainforest, and many others. Each book has dealt with some form of cutting-edge science such as human cloning, quantum mechanics, engineered plague, and more. And an ancient religious artifact is always thrown into the mix. So research is a key ingredient to writing my stories.

    How much research is enough? How do I know which facts to include and which to leave out? It’s often impractical if not impossible to personally experience the numerous faraway locations used in my novels or to speak with authority on say, the latest technique in human cell regeneration or sub-particle string theory. But my readers need to experience these topics while not being overwhelmed to the point of getting kicked out of the story. In the draft stages, no amount of research ever seems like enough. I try to immerse myself into an abundance of facts that I can distill down into a balanced proportion with the rest of the story elements. I rely on experts in the appropriate scientific fields, or personal accounts of on-the-ground travelers, or the myriad of Internet resources to “see” the actual location. Then as the editing process takes place, I trust my sense of balance to add to or trim down the facts until I feel they either move the story forward or contribute to the development of my characters. If they don’t, then they get tossed. Or if they need a little more meat on their bones, then I go back to digging for buried treasure.

  3. This is something I think every writer struggles with. My experience with students is that they tend to put in too much of their research, especially if it’s a period piece. My standard advice is those cases is “Your research is showing.”

    I think the trick is to do all the research, have the background solid in your mind, and then think of it as an iceberg – the reader should only see the tip, but they should have the sense of this great huge mass of material beneath it. In other words, do the work, learn everything you can about your subject or time period or forensics, or whatever it is, until it becomes part of you. Then you have to resist the urge to dump it all out on the page to show the reader, “See what I know?”

    You might feel like any research you aren’t putting on the page is wasted, but that’s not true. When you’re a writer, nothing is really wasted. The reader will be able to sense the authenticity of what you’re writing, and infer that you know your subject.

  4. I think research is one of those things where it helps to have experience. As CE Lawrence quite rightly points out, it is easy for the research to show too much on the page. A writer needs to know their subject, and to have a real feel for it. They need to know their characters as well, and have a real feel for the kinds of things they would think and feel and say as well. But they don’t have to have a text-book knowledge of everything they are writing about.

    I suspect that attitudes to research have changed over the years as well. When I was writing ‘Fire Force’, which is a book set amongst mercenaries in Africa, I went back and re-read some of the classics of the genre. For example, I re-read ‘The Dogs of War’ by Frederick Forsyth. I can remember reading it when it came out, when I would have been about ten, and loving it. But today it seems like a really dull book, mainly because there is just too much research in it. The hero spends ages and ages setting up the mission. He regularly travels to Brussels to set up false bank accounts – by train and ferry, for Heaven’s sake, which takes up many pages. He doesn’t even get a plane. In the end, it just makes for what today seems a really dull read.

    By contrast, ‘The Da Vinci Code’ is a poorly researched book. There are plenty or mistakes. Indeed, Westminster Abbey in London even had to issue a guidebook for tourists correcting some of the factual errors because so many tourists came in asking about them. But who cares? It’s a really good book – and it certainly sold well.

    Thirty years ago, I think people expected thrillers to be very research-driven. But not right now. Today the key is to create your characters, and your story, and then do the research that is necessary to get things right. But this is fiction – its the plot and the people that really count.

  5. I love research! As Joe already pointed out, it’s mining for gems. The process of research can lead to new plot ideas, can give motivation to your characters. As I researched the White House for my new White House Gardener mystery series, much of what I learned never made it onto the page. But I needed to know it (or really my characters did). Without that knowledge, I don’t think my characters would have acted the same way or made the same decisions.

    In fact, in my first draft of Flowerbed of State, I wrote a long scene that explained the background of the bank bailouts and financial reform–a small subplot. When it came to revisions, that was the first scene to go. The reader didn’t need proof that I’d done my homework. He needed a good story with a tight plot.

    In my writing process, I do tons of research, but only let the reader see a tip of the iceberg (like C.E. already suggested).

    Best part of research for me? If I’m ever stuck in my plot, I reach for my resources, read through my notes. 100% of the time, I’ll find exactly what I need to add depth to the scene I’m struggling with and move the story forward.

  6. Sorry I was late; lost track of time in the research. :- )

    I knew this was a great subject! Great gems can be found in those previous posts.

    To agree with Joe, mining for treasure is, for me, the best way to put it. Like Marianna, I too have issues trying to determine how much research is needed and how much I’m procrastinating the writing of the first draft.
    I love the “tip of the iceberg” suggestion. Never saw it quite like that.

    Not sure if Da Vinci Code was so much under-research or rather the author took excessive creative license. Sometimes sacrificing accuracy for plot advancement is a tough choice. For my own thriller in Spanish, Hereredo del Mal (Heir of Evil), my main character needed some urgent DNA test results to prove he was not the grandson of Adolf Hitler. But parenthood testing takes too long, specially when my character was on the run for his life and could not wait weeks. Thus, I sacrificed that bit of reality, and made sure the test result came back in days.

    I’ve met lots of interesting people while doing research. One thing I noticed is that most people like to discuss their day job without any jealousy and pour the info selflessly. My thanks to them.

  7. My apologies, everyone! I’ve been out of town since Friday and couldn’t get a good enough wifi link anywhere in the mountains to post. I hope it’s not too late to join the discussion ;o(

    Since I’ve already missed the welcome portion of the program, I’ll dive right in to the flow…

    Research for me is about playing with concepts I’ve loved all my life. I don’t think I could do as much of it as I do for my contemporary fantasy novels, if I wasn’t enthralled with the subject matter. And like Marianne, I have to force myself to put the research away eventually, so the analytical side of my brain can give way to the creative.

    I know I’ve done enough research when the characters rattling around in my head begin to act in real ways, as I think of them on the page. I know I’ve done too much, when those same characters stop talking to me because I’m too worried about authenticity to let the fantasy aspects of what I write lead. It’s a subjective thing, and totally dependent on the type of book you’re writing, I suspect. But for me, there’s no such thing as too much research–but it is a problem when you cling too tightly to what’s “real” when you’re writing any type of fiction.

    I’ve read extensively about lucid dreaming and dream sharing, for example, because my Legacy series is based on the parapsychology of the sleeping mind. And I’ve read as much as I can get my hands on about psychic phenomenon, because that, too, is essential to the world I’m creating and what I do with it has to feel real. But the beauty of writing thrillers into a sci-fi/fantasy world is that I’m expected to make something alternative out of the science I begin with.

    Don’t get me wrong, extnsive research is essential. Knowing as much as I can about what’s possible and gives me a comfort level from which to create the unreal things I do with my psychic twins and covert government scientists and the Psychic Realm in which the battles in my story take place. But that’s just it. Once I know what is, I’m free to create what is “almost” there. As Michio Kaku says in his “Physics of the Impossible” series–the very best imagination and invention we produce comes from knowing our limits and pushing beyond them.

    Again, it’s an individual thing. It’s about your story and how much research you need. And it’s about your creativity and when you need to let go of the analysis of what you’re doing and embrace the inspiration it gives you…

    Research should propel you forward. Never hold you back. It should…make you dream ;o)

  8. First off, thanks to everyone at The Big Thrill for these roundtable discussions. They are a great way to learn from successful writers in the thriller/mystery community and gain insight on how other writers at all levels deal with the issues involved in putting words on paper to tell a great story.

    This week’s topic is eerily timely for me. I am outlining my second novel right now and am facing the same dilemma posed by this discussion’s question: how much is enough? My novel(s) are geopolitical thrillers that involve real world current events peppered with historical backstory, and accuracy is extremely important to me in writing them. I agree with many of the posts here that you don’t want to overwhelm the reader with mass quantities of information that will inevitably slow the pacing of the book or at least make for awkward story structure. Revealing just enough to lend credibility is the balancing act.

    I do, however, try to get every little detail correct, such as availability of non-stop flights from Cairo to NYC and how long they take, or which streets in a city are actually “one-way” so I don’t have a character turning right into head-on traffic (unless I want him to). Perhaps that may be taking it a little far, but I make painstaking efforts to eliminate a reader’s distraction from the story because they know for a fact that you have to take the Blue or Yellow Lines of the DC Metro to reach the Pentagon if I mistakenly had my character get there straight off the Red Line.

    But my research efforts are also plagued by a slightly different factor. Because my books are based on current events, I often feel pressured to predict the outcomes of uncertain or changing situations. Take the Middle East and North Africa, for instance. Certain countries facing upheaval right now play pivotal roles in defining the actions of some of the characters and even major parts of the plot itself, but as things change day-to-day during the “Arab Spring,” I find it difficult to know when to turn off the research part of my brain and just write.

    This is also a factor that bugs me when deciding to shop the finished manuscript to agents or self-publish (as I did with my first book, “Open Source”), because I am afraid that the events of the real world will overcome anything I’ve written, and the book will become “historical fiction” by default.

    Any advice on how to deal with this conundrum?

    1. Matthew,

      I can only imagine how frustrating it must be to hold onto a novel-length manuscript due to events beyond your control. But, I would certainly draw encouragement from the fact that Category 7, the book Marianna mentioned below, went on to become a New York Times bestseller. Maybe waiting, as frustrating as it can be, can be a blessing in disguise (I sound like a marriage counselor.).

      But, if you are building up steam as a result of having to hold onto one manuscript, see if you can divert it to power through, or at least well into, the next one.

      Fair winds, brother.

  9. Hi Matthew,

    As the saying goes, reality bites, doesn’t it? It’s always getting in the way of fiction (in thrillers, anyway). Unfortunately, there’s not much ay of us can do about it. When my first thriller, Category 7, was on our agent’s desk waiting to be sent to editors (snail mail!), Katrina hit New Orleans. We had to delay submitting it because it had to do with, yes, a huge hurricane hitting a major US city. A year after our second, Frozen Fire, came out, the BP explosion in the Gulf happened…and the trigger was, apparently, to an underwater methane release. Guess what the disaster in FF was? Uh huh. It’s been a spooky ride. I’m keeping mum on the topic of our next book, which is due out in August.

    As to the Arab Spring issue, that ‘s really the roll of the dice, isn’t it? I have a friend who’s based a YA novel on her experience in Syria as a CIA analyst, and now she might have to change everything to a fictional country if the regime topples. Or ditch the book altogether. I can understand the dilemma, but I think readers are okay with a fictional world if the author writes credibly and knowledgeably about everything else. You can always make it pretty clear that the names were changed to protect the guilty.

    I applaud you for taking on geopolitics. Talk about a topic with a lot of moving parts! One way to get a handle on how to reveal enough but not too much background on the real-world topic, as opposed to the fictional backstory, might be to read biographies and autobiographies associated with the players and events you’re writing about. I realize you’ve probably already done that to gain information, but look at them again for the framework. I find that these sorts of books, which really plunk the reader into the middle of a situation, are often very good at summarizing the circumstances and then moving on. They cover a span of years, if not decades, and can’t afford to plod along and kill the pacing, nor can they afford to spend pages and pages explaining the details of a situation because their editors will kill them for writing a 10,000 word tome.

    Good luck!
    Marianna

  10. How much research is enough? I would say at least enough, via the most credible and accurate sources available, to make the backstory of our characters believable to an informed, intelligent reader.

    A humorous example of a character that is unbelievable because his creator didn’t do enough research is Billy Ray Valentine’s blind, legless, Vietnam veteran panhandler in the movie Trading Places.

    Billy Ray created a “character” that was believable at first glance (he wore shades, swiveled his head like Stevie Wonder, had his legs concealed, and pushed himself around on a wheeled platform).

    But, Billy’s failure to do his research is reflected in his “character’s” dialogue, when he overreaches into a subject he hasn’t adequately researched (Vietnam war) in response to two police officers who ask him if he’s seen anyone panhandling:

    — I ain’t seen nothing since I stepped on that landmine in Vietnam. It was very painful.
    — You were in ‘Nam? So were we. Where?
    — I was in…Sang Bang…Dang Gong…I was all over the place, a lot of places.
    — What unit?
    — I was with the Green Berets, Special Unit Battalions…Commando Airborne Tactics…Specialist Tactics Unit Battalion. Yeah, it was real hush hush. I was Agent Orange, Special Agent Orange, that was me.

    It didn’t take a minute for the police officers to trash Billy Ray’s story and expose his “character” (wounded Vietnam vet) as a fraud. Aren’t readers a lot like those two cops, questioning the background, lifestyle, attitude, behavior, and dialogue of our characters? Are our characters researched well enough to hold up under reader scrutiny, or will they fail miserably and make us the literary equivalent of Billy Ray Valentine?

  11. Marianna,

    Thanks for the input! I admit I had not thought of the biography model, but that makes perfect sense. It also gives me an excuse to read the four or so biographies I have on my shelf at home or my Kindle that I haven’t delved into yet. I also appreciate the research info/links you put on your website; some new stuff there I hadn’t seen before.

    I will continue write and let the geoplitical chips fall where they may. Perhaps I will be able to get by with some final draft editing should things turn out too different from what I expect….
    –Matt

  12. A few years back, I was preparing for a panel at MWA’s SleuthFest conference on the topic of research. So I assembled a webpage with a bunch of tips and links to help writers get more out of their research. Some of the areas covered are creating character names and bios, building a sense of place, tracking down global information, and a ton of other links. Here’s the link: http://www.joe-moore.com/research

    I hope you’ll find it useful.

  13. Great comments, everyone! Thanks to Joe for the great link – much appreciated. And I love Michael’s example about the fake Vietnam vet. Ouch! It certainly hits home. In one of my Sherlock Holmes novels, The Star of India, I had a parrot as a “character,” because a good friend of mine owned one. I learned a fair amount about parrots, only to have a reader correct me about the particular species. Turns out my friend was wrong about the kind of parrot he owned!

    I think the parallel Michael draws between cops and reader is perfect – it seems to me there’s a certain kind of reader out there who just revels in the chance of catching us out on a detail, no matter how minor. So we just have to live with that, and do our best.

    I have also heard the same thing about DaVinci Code that Matt says – i.e. that it’s poorly researched. I find that ironic, since Dan Brown’s impetus for writing it was allegedly research! Or so I’ve heard….

    I want to add my two cents worth to Marianna’s excellent reply to Matt’s question. Matt, it occurred to me that there are two possible solutions. One is that you could set your books slightly earlier in time, so that by the time you finish a novel, the geopolitical landscape will have sorted itself out and you won’t be “incorrect” in your plot.

    The other thing is that you can always call the stories “alternate history” or fantasy thrillers – who knows, you might attract a whole subset of readers that way! I’ve heard great things about Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, for example (I know that’s straightforward historical fantasy, but still, what a cool premise.)

    I also want to applaud your insistence on getting the “little things” right – I think readers will forgive you the big things that you couldn’t predict. Hope that helps!

    C.E. (Carole)

    1. Thanks for your comments, Carole. Your parrot story and your comment about readers who love to catch writers making mistakes reminds me of an adio ThrillerFest lecture (by James Rollins?) I listened to about a year ago. He said essentially the same as what you wrote, but I could tell by his voice and tone that he REALLY must have gotten nailed, and often. It was funny.

      It was also encouraging. You guys set a good example. You run a gauntlet of experts and know-it-alls every time you have something published. You take your licks along with the checks, and then you help and encourage the rest of us by being open enough to tell us about it. I think you demonstrate a hallmark of winners in any activity: You take your critics’ best shots, and you keep on moving (writing) toward the next target.

      Thanks for sharing that story! 🙂

      Michael

      1. Audio, not adio.

        Sigh. Why is it that no matter how many times I read my own writing, I never catch all the yptos? 😉

  14. Matthew, there’s so much great advice here on the geopolitical aspects of your research question. All I can add is that I’m a reader who loves to immerse herself in your type of book. But I’m not the fact-checker who’s going to nail you if you let a detail slide here or there because you’re compelled to. While I join everyone in applauding your attention to all the great things you’re determined to get right, your characters’ ride through your realistic world is ultimately the key for me.

    I want to be swept away along with your protagonist. And if you take me on that ride, I’ll be hooked. So, I suspect, will be the majority of your readers.

    I understand that you don’t want to disappoint those who live for complete realism. I fact, I personally don’t read a great deal of other authors’ psychic thrillers–BECAUSE I know more than I should about the subject matter and would find it distracting if someone took too much creative license.

    But, to use an earlier example, I suspect Dan Brown’s casual approach to certain facts didn’t bother the majority of his readers, because those readers weren’t looking for the flaws. They loved the fantasy of experiencing as a expert the world he’d created, not knowing that so much of it was off track. They were hooked on the compelling topic and the thrilling ride. What made it work was that no one before had done what he was doing quite that way.

    Which is my way of saying to have confidence in the choices you ultimately make and the story you’re telling and your passion for your characters’ (and readers’) experience. You will find your audience. The world you’re creating around current events that impact all of our daily lives will capture our imagination.

    When you feel yourself worrying about the research and the choices you’re making, trust your magnificent story. Make it a compelling adventure, whatever direction you take, and we, the readers, will be right there with you!

  15. I just want to applaud (and second) Anna’s excellent advice, which really captures the spirit of the whole writer/reader relationship. She speaks with such wisdom and eloquence that I have nothing to add, really, other than to say I agree.

  16. Anna,
    That is outstanding advice! In addition to all the great help from the other authors on this roundtable, your points are well received. I think that is exactly what I needed to hear to push forward with this book. Thank you very much.
    -Matt

  17. Have any of you ever felt like you were getting (or were) too emotionally involved in your subject matter? How has that affected your research, if at all? Do you think it helps create more well-developed, believable stories and characters? Or, does it just wear you out and leave you wishing you’d never wanted to write a novel? 🙂

  18. Nobody zapped me for saying “a 10,000 word tome” in my last reply. Thank you. Clearly I meant 10,000 page tome…. See, it’s always the details that get you….

    I agree with Anna’s excellent advice about letting the story guide you. No matter how much research you do, you WILL make mistakes and readers WILL catch them. Sometimes it’s an oversight but sometimes, as has happened to me more than once, it’s a matter of not knowing the questions you need to ask–which makes it hard to find the answers.

    Michael, I always get emotionally involved with my characters but not in a problematic way. They’re in my head for so long and I am in theirs, that I think it’s kind of inevitable. I view it as a positive thing. It lets me get into deep POV mode and when I begin to feel what they feel when another character takes a verbal shot at them, or a physical one, for that matter, I am able to write the scene more acutely. I’ve written scenes when I’ve been crying so hard that I can’t see the screen any more. Those have gotten me some feedback; the emotion came through. In some of my thrillers, I’ve written scenes that have left me kind of queasy because I get the picture in my head and then describe it, and I’m not good with gore. But that works, too. I can only hope the effort appears (effortlessly!) on the page, but whether or not it does, I know what has gone into the scene and the character and I think it strengthens the story.

    Marianna

    1. Marianna,

      Thank you so much for your response. I appreciate your openness, especially about the crying and queasiness. I get caught up in my characters that way sometimes, and I catch myself worrying about them – or wanting to “get” them if they’re bad – as if they’re real people.

      Sometimes after a really good writing session I have to check my emotions and make sure I leave them in THAT ROOM. Otherwise, I’ll be so caught up in the event or person about which I was writing that I’ll set myself up for a misunderstanding when I cross the threshold and interact with a real person.

      But, it seems like most of what I read and hear about researching and creating characters, and the events that move, shape, or affect them in their story, is so matter-of-fact and business-like, as if creating people (characters) and then putting them through the ringer, sometimes over and over again, is just another day-job or hobby engaged in by writers because, gosh, it’s just something they enjoy doing, and it makes them feel good, and they get to show it to everyone, like crafting a beautiful doll and then proudly putting it on display.

      But, as writers, all of our “dolls” – at least the memorable ones – have scars, and we’re the ones who put them there.

      Thanks again, Marianna.

      Michael

      Now I’ll probably get hammered by an offended writer-website-surfing doll maker. 😉

    2. As a new writer, I always have to be extremely emotionally involved with my story and have a passion about it. I once had to get quite tipsy on wine around midnight to get inside the head of my emotionally distraught serial killer. Each time I put my heart and passion into a scene or character, it comes out so well that when I reread it much later, I sometimes think “that’s really good! I couldn’t have written that.” Those are my best writings and I really don’t think you can get too emotionally involved. It makes it much more real.

  19. Michael, I love your question. And I Iove to read/write about topics I’m passionate about.

    I think the only time I find my closeness to characters or a plot element getting in the way is when I realize I’m overdoing it. Over-writing. Over stressing a point that I’ve gotten very close to emotionally as I create.

    This can happen by putting too much backstory or detail in–because I’ve researches a pet topic to death and can’t let any of it go. Or I spend too much page time on a character’s internal thoughts or reactions because I don’t want to miss a thing, meanwhile my plot and pacing are slowing to the point that the redear will no doubt slip into a coma.

    Less is more in the types of books we write. As we create, we have to pick and chose just the right facts and moments and turning points. And that gets harder, the closer you indentify with your story’s subject matter and your characters’ world. And as Marianna says, NONE of that hard work can show, if we want the most seamless, realistic experience for the reader.

    Which, I suppose, goes a long way toward explaining why I spend so much of my process rewriting, refining, and trimming my stories… But that’s why we get paid the “big bucks,” right? ;o)

    1. Anna,

      Thanks for your comments. You’ve helped me remember that a first (or second, etc.) draft can have info dumps if it helps the writer get “it” out of his system, as long as he ultimately recognizes the content of those dumps for what it is on the page, and not for what it means personally to the writer. Several of your points really got my attention:

      1. Emotional attachment can lead to over-stressing a point.
      2. Watch out for too much “page time” on a character’s internal thoughts or reaction.
      3. Less is more, so pick and choose.
      4. Rewrite, refine, and trim.
      5. We get paid big bucks. 😉

      By the way, I love “too much page time” on a character’s internal thoughts. I’ve never seen it referred to that way, but it certainly puts the issue in perspective, especially for those of us who want to write for food (and gas, or accommodations at exotic vacation locations, or moon shots on surplus Russian space shuttles or whatever). As you pointed out, we have to recognize when we are wasting time waiting on a character, and for some reason “page time” helps me visualize that concept.

      You’ve made me think of characters lined up in front of a writer’s desk, needing to tell their part of the story but stuck behind a character who refuses to open up and tell the writer what he really feels or thinks or saw or heard, while the writer considers committing an unplanned homicide but instead opens a bottle of Advil and pops one in her mouth and chases it down with a long, drawn-out sip of wine she knows she shouldn’t be drinking as she glances at her calendar and the date with the big red circle around it and the word “Deadline” scrawled across the top and punctuated with two big exclamation points.

      Now, if everything I’ve learned from this thread seems as clear to me tomorrow as it does tonight, I’ll be fine. 🙂

      Thanks again for your great comments, Anna.
      Michael

  20. I just found this wonderful site and all of you fabulous writers. I’m writing a psychological thriller; think Black Swan, that so far I’ve done my research so thoroughly, that I have my book set up with the clues that I need.

    However, I’m stuck on a middle grade historical fiction that is placed in Mississippi in 1926. My protagonist goes on to Chicago. I have Miss. down, but not Chicago. Where can I look to find images, pictures, dialogue–things like that for Chicago in 1926?

    This is the kind of research I’m having the problem with (Historical inf.)
    Thank you everyone,
    Joannie

    1. Hi Joan,
      I think the first place would be some organization like the Chicago Historical Society. I don’t know if there is one by that exact name, but most cities have some historical organization that functions as a quasi-archive/museum. What else springs to mind is websites dealing with the Al Capone/Eliot Ness stories—I’m pretty sure that whole war was set in Chicago. Dillinger, etc…Chicago was a big “mob” town in those days and there would be tons of information about the city in that era on websites or in books that track that history. Not you would use the criminal information, but it would certainly give you leads.

      Good luck!
      Marianna

  21. Michael,
    I too thought that was a great question. I just want to add what I hope is amusing take on the subject. I had to write quite an explicit sex scene for a novel once, and I was traveling on an Amtrak train at the time.

    I began writing it, and found to my surprise that the more I wrote, the more I got “into it” (i.e. horny.) I was keenly aware of my feelings, and as the train began to fill up with passengers, I tried to hide my computer screen. But then an old lady sat next to me. She looked like a proper church going type, and I was mortified, convinced she could read every word I was writing.

    The more I worried, the more my face flushed (I’m a redhead, so when I blush everyone can see it.) I couldn’t stop wondering whether she was reading it and judging me, but I also couldn’t bear to drag myself away from my scene, because I was really enjoying the vicarious experience. It was almost like I was having an illicit affair on the train!

    To this day I don’t know if the old lady saw what I was writing. Maybe if she did, she might have even enjoyed it – who knows?

    But I definitely felt like it was a moment where I was perhaps getting a little too carried away by my characters and their – ahem, experiences. (As to research for the scene, I’m happy to say I had plenty of research in my past to draw from. I just had to change the names to protect the innocent.)
    Best,
    Carole

    1. Yep, I would certainly say that’s an amusing take on the subject, Carole. 🙂

      The poor lady beside you was probably feeling sorry for you, and thinking how sad it was that you had to drag that old computer along and work on the train, and that you couldn’t just enjoy the ride.

  22. Joannie,
    I’m not sure about finding information on 1920’s Chicago, though I do want to suggest a book to you.

    You may have already read this, but Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson is an excellent account of Chicago in 1896. I know your story is set 30 years later, but it might be of interest to read it to get a feel for the city as it was then.

    It’s also a terrific combination of social history and true crime, and may give you a feel for atmosphere you can use in your own work. And also I was thinking his extensive bibliography may help you.

    And if you don’t already live in Chicago, visit it. I live in NYC, and you can see evidence of the city’s past everywhere. There’s no substitute for actually being there, even 90 years later.

    Good luck!
    Best,
    Carole (C.E. Lawrence)

  23. Good stuff, Carol.My writing partner lives in Chicago. Maybe its time I visit. I was there once for the RWA conference, but it was so many years ago and my first conference so I was a very good girl about going to the workshops. LOL Although I did get to go to that restaurant on the 92nd floor or something like that?

    Thank you,
    Joannie

  24. To everyone on this thread: A big “Thank you” for making this one of the most informative and FUN Thriller Roundtable discussions. Thanks for taking time to write such detailed comments and answers to questions. I’ll be watching for your names in the future.

    Wishing you weeks and weeks on all the bestseller lists,
    Michael

  25. Verna, I love your comment. To respond, let me tell you what a therapist once told me (Did I say “my” therapist? Stop looking at methat way! Eh-hem…)

    –“Writers are lucky bastards. You get to dissociate for a living!”

    Because, yes, the only way to make a character real enough for the reader, is for his/her journey (even the antagonist serial killer) TOO real for you. We become these people. Or maybe they become us. Either way, they live in our skin and our minds and our dreams for a good long while, when we’re bringing them to life on the page. And that’s just how it is. Why we’re so “interesting.” Special. Unique. Touched. Eh-hem…

    So, I agree. No such thing as too much research or getting too close. But there is a fine line. We have to edit ourselves and make sure the reader’s experience is seamless and not so far down the rabbit hole we’ve sunk into with one character that they can’t find their way back to the central story line. Because that story, and not just a single character, is the point after all. Reason must prevail, even if we’ve entered this profession to avoid all that practical nonsense…

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