Too much information – be gentlemanly with your research

As it's their wedding they can be forgiven

I just read The Fear Index by Robert Harris. Much of the derring-do is in the world of hedge funds. Hedge funds make me feel baffled and not a little cross. Mercifully, Harris is a great storyteller – which means he knows that already.

Instead of baffling us, Harris starts with characters in a situation we can relate to – a man with a mysterious intruder in his house. A good half of the book passes before the reader ever has to grapple with how a hedge fund actually works. When we do it’s a terrific scene – a flashback to how the main characters met, so we want to read it. It’s full of entertaining characterisation – a racy rogue explains to an introverted scientist that it’s like betting on whether the girl at the fridge is wearing black underwear.

If you know about hedge funds, it’s charming enough that you forgive it being explained so basically. If you don’t, you see a bit of character interaction and emerge smugger and wiser.

Setting overload

So many novels derive much of their atmosphere and story from the setting. Whether it’s historical, sci-fi, fantasy, mountaineering, SAS thrillers (or even the world of classical music like My Memories of a Future Life). A lot of the fun of a book like this is the feeling you’ve had an insider view. But it’s easy to overdo the details. Especially if some of your story hinges around something as intricate as how hedge funds work.

I see a lot of novels that judge this wrong. Research-dumps, screeds of stodgy exposition that the writer mistakes for scene-setting. It’s clear that the writer has done admirable amounts of legwork – but they then frogmarch the reader through it too.

This not only holds up the story, it puts the reader on the outside while things are explained to them. In fact, you want them on the inside, immersed in the world as though the distinctive details were a natural part of life.

Wear it lightly

Harris clearly understands that however heavily he has to research, the novel should wear it lightly.

His other thrillers tackle ancient Rome (Imperium, Pompeii, Lustrum), the 1940s wartime code-breaking centre Bletchley Park (Enigma) an alternate 1960s (Fatherland) – to name but a few. They are full of intricate world-building – but he translates them into pressures on characters that generate stories. At the same time, you never feel you’re struggling to understand, or patronised because he’s gone too simple. It’s as if when he sat down to write he tried to say as little as possible about what he knew – and put the story and character first.

In your handling of research you have to be like the definition of a gentleman – a man who knows how to play the banjo but refrains from doing so.

Which authors do you think are gentlemanly with research?

How to write a novel – in-depth webinar series with Joanna Penn of The Creative Penn, starting November.  Find more details and sign up here.

Nail Your Novel – my short book about how to write a long one – is available from Amazon. Not too late to nab a Kindle copy if you’re aiming to be a Wrimo!

My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.


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  1. #1 by Kay on October 30, 2011 - 4:44 pm

    Yoko Ogawa, in “The Housekeeper and the Professor,” is gentlemanly with research, here, in higher, but really basic, mathematics shared by a top-level but memory-impaired professor, explained to and understood by a housekeeper and her 10-year old son. One cool way Ogawa did this was by repetition–we see the same concepts or formulas more than once and they are built on as carefully as a toothpick castle. And they are knitted together by a simple and profound story–respect is the prime number of the lacy complexity relationships full of human frailty.

    • #2 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 30, 2011 - 6:31 pm

      What a lovely example, Kay. Higher maths is just the kind of thing to bring me out in hives (it certainly did when I tried to study it) and probably the writer traded on the idea that few readers would understand it in enough depth to start with. I can imagine that building understanding like this allowed her to build a symbol too.

  2. #3 by Dom Camus on October 30, 2011 - 8:02 pm

    I don’t know if it counts as “research” what with the world being fictional, but the writer whose work in this area I most admire is Frank Herbert. There’s a huge amount of background in Dune, but because of the way it’s slipped in to scenes where interesting things are happening, you don’t feel as though you’ve been wading through it. (To be fair it’s not light reading in absolute terms, but relative to the sheer amount of content it definitely is.)

    “The Dosadi Experiment” does as even better job since I managed to read the entire book without realising it was a sequel. To this day I haven’t read The Whipping Star – the previous book – because I like the second one so much that I don’t want to risk ruining it for myself!

    • #4 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 30, 2011 - 8:31 pm

      Hi Dom – yes fictional counts, as the problem is much the same. You’ve certainly made me want to read Dune now – something no one else has managed to do…

  3. #5 by Deb Atwood on October 30, 2011 - 10:13 pm

    I so agree with your post, which puts me in mind of Hemingway’s iceberg theory. I really felt immersed in the world of classical music in My Memories of a Future Life, but I experienced it seamlessly through the life of the narrator.

    I hate research dumps almost as much as I hate back story dumps. Often the worst offenders are series writers who figure they have their audiences locked in and don’t need to embed information.

    Still, I love learning stuff. I appreciate the education of class and caste I gained from Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things; all the while the narrators maintained their unique voices, and I never fell out of the story. A cool technique Jodi Picoult employed in Second Glances was the epigraph at the chapter openings. I learned all about eugenics (talk about a misleading term!) from the mouths of Oliver Wendell Holmes and Margaret Sanger.

    • #6 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 30, 2011 - 10:25 pm

      Hemingway’s iceberg – that’s it entirely, Deb. Glad MMoaFL worked for you – I had acres more material I could have put in and never used. Enough to write several more novels featuring classical musicians.

      The series dump – yes, ouch! I ghosted a series and one of the trickiest points was starting a new book and having to ease the background in naturally. And each book had to do it differently, of course. It really tested my ingenuity.

  4. #9 by Nancy Sima on October 30, 2011 - 11:34 pm

    I really love Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman. The book imagines Einstein as he developed his Theory of Relativity. Don’t be afraid of the heavy topic. Lightman is gentlemanly as he explores different concepts of time that come off the page like a dream. It all made me want to go back and give physics another look.

    Just read MMofaFL and loved it as well. I have a close friend who is a classical musician. You hit upon so many insights about the freelancing life of a classical musican. It was a wonderful read!

    • #10 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 31, 2011 - 8:02 am

      Thanks, Nancy. Wow, I am getting to hear about some interesting books here. I’m off to put Einstein’s Dreams on my wish list!

  5. #11 by Carol Riggs on October 31, 2011 - 5:20 pm

    Oh, great points! (Love the word “screeds” too.) Readers will either be bored out of their skulls or else SKIP those parts that are so dutifully included. My inclination is to skip them when reading. In writing, I TRY to weave the info in. Sometimes I’m more successful than others. ;o)

    • #12 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on October 31, 2011 - 8:39 pm

      Carol, it’s one of those writerly processes that involves going back time and again to make sure everything’s as lean as could be.

  6. #13 by Joanna Penn on November 1, 2011 - 8:10 am

    I loved this book as well Roz – funny that we both grabbed it – must be that thriller gene :)
    I reviewed it here
    and I was particularly impressed by the way he condensed extensive research into a suspenseful story. There were no chunks of obvious knowledge dumps and nothing was boring. I checked a few things and it is based on truth in terms of the financial markets. Also, a surprising novel coming from a historical thriller writer. I think some of his fans will be disappointed with a more modern direction but I thought it was an excellent book!

    • #14 by rozmorris @dirtywhitecandy on November 1, 2011 - 3:45 pm

      Thiller gene! I think he did a terrific job. There’s so much to learn from him – and so much to enjoy as well. I followed it up with The Ghost – much better than the movie.

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