Sunday, June 22, 2014

Research – A little goes a long way

You will, or should, only use a fraction of the research that you do for a book.

For A DOLLHOUSE TO DIE FOR, I probably have about 45 single-spaced pages of research on Victorian dollhouses. From this plethora of information, I probably put a tenth of it into the first draft, slashed about half again after the first revision, cut more during copy edits, and even more before the final galleys.

So was all that time wasted?

Not really, because you don’t know what will prove useful until you educate yourself. I took every single book out of my local library on the history of dollhouses, on decorating and design, and how to build a dollhouse. It was while I was reading about dollhouse construction that I came to one section about wiring, and how the wrong methods could prove fatal. To most people, those words would send a chill down their spine. To a mystery writer, it was an “Aha!” moment. Now I knew how my victim would die!

If you don’t know much about your subject, research can be a double-edged sword. You have to do more, but you also don’t have any preconceived ideas. The facts that jumped out to me as interesting are hopefully the ones that will appeal to readers who also may not know much about Victorian dollhouses.

When you see information repeated over and over in various books, you begin to realize what’s important. For instance, dollhouses are usually a one inch to one foot scale, or sometimes ½ inch to one foot scale, (although some of the older dollhouses didn’t always follow this rule). Several books stressed that it wasn’t the choice of scale so much as the fact that everything should be in the same scale. It sounded compelling enough to me to have one of my characters actually say that line.

I happen to enjoy reading books where I can learn something, but there’s a fine line between providing enough description, and what we politely refer to in the business as an “info dump”. 

It’s tempting, because after all, now you know so much about this subject and you want to show the world how much hard work you’ve done. But just a few authentic details sprinkled throughout will help establish credibility. Use the most relevant facts, and put them into your own words. 

Of course, it’s ideal if you can find yourself a real expert. Luckily for me, the former president of my romance writers’ group, Adele Downs, owned a successful doll business for many years. I treated her to lunch and gleaned some fascinating information. For instance, that it’s possible to have wallpaper custom made to match the antique wallpaper of your dollhouse. She also talked about some of the extreme collectors she’d met, and how they would spend vast sums of money on their hobby, leading to problems like bankruptcy and divorce. It was the inspiration for one of the main characters in the book. 

There are readers out there who will be savvy about your subject matter, and who will throw your book across the room if you get it wrong. I consider it my duty as an author to do the best job I can to be accurate. I may still not get it quite right, but at least I’ve made a good effort.

One caveat: Research can prove to be so much more fun than slogging away at your manuscript, but there comes a point where you have to stop. Do enough to get started and spark some ideas, and note the books that you found most useful so you can go back and do more if necessary.

So was all that research wasted if you only use a tiny percentage in the final book? No, because now you sound like you know what you’re talking about. And the big plus? You’ve taught yourself something new.

Happy writing!