Recently I stumbled across this post for Stephen King’s top 20 rules for writers. I can agree with most of them, and one in particular about research really struck a chord with me for a couple of reasons.
18. The research shouldn’t overshadow the story. “Remember that word back. That’s where the research belongs: as far in the background and the back story as you can get it.”
Reading this was a cautionary reminder for me. I’m writing a novel about an archaeologist, and at the same time I’m doing volunteer work with an archaeology group, cataloging artifacts from a dig in 1000-year-old ruins. My experience there is ramping up my authenticity, providing insight into the work of my protagonist and giving me a worthy foundation on which to build my story. It is also firing my imagination and revving my brain in ways I have to curb.
Along with my cataloging work in the lab, I have taken classes in ancient industries: cordage-making, weaving, pottery-making. Every day in the lab and every class gives me insight into the workings of an ancient village, and each time I’ve come away with a giddy determination to use what I’ve learned. I love the fact that I can write authentically about this. The authenticity will bring weight to the book that I could not have imagined.
But when I started thinking about how I was going to introduce all this new-found knowledge, the bubble of excitement popped. I began to imagine my protagonist, a college professor/archaeologist, giving pointers to her students as they survey an ancient site. Imparting knowledge. Pop-quizzing. And the feeling rapidly changed from excitement to dull heaviness.
The research had completely overshadowed the story.
Interestingly enough, I’ve read quite a few techno-thrillers lately that suffer from the same malady. Paragraph after paragraph of the evolution of political factions and regimes, long names teased out of jumbled acronyms, even the design and workings of futuristic guns, aircraft, etc. Some of the books have begun to read more like textbooks than novels. I find it very distracting when the narrative suddenly changes from telling the story to bringing me up to speed on the latest gadget. I understand that books of this nature have a ton of background information and that the reader really does need a rudimentary understanding, but the real trick is working it subtly into the story so it’s not droning from the lectern.
Luckily for me, after getting kicked in the head from these two different angles, I can go back to my story and let it unfold organically. The knowledge and information are there in my brain, and if called on, can be worked into the story. IF called on. If not, then it stays in my brain, enriching my life but not taking over my novel. Stephen’s right. Back story belongs in the back. It’s settings, props, but not the main characters. I may have to bookmark this post so I can remind myself often.