Research: Keeping the Backstory in the Back

libraryRecently 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.

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic, award-winning author who writes in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres. She has been both traditionally and independently published and lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

19 thoughts on “Research: Keeping the Backstory in the Back”

  1. Melissa, I had the same issues when I was researching for my historical pirate story – I had all of this great stuff and quite a large collection of compelling details that I wanted to include in my story line. It was really tricky to weave such details in without becoming preachy and having the story bog down and read like an encyclopedia. Like you point out, it worked best when the storyline itself – an event in the plot perhaps- offered a place to work in a detail here and there.
    Thanks for the great post. Saving this one and putting it in my writing folder!

    1. It’s interesting how we can get lost in the research and hare off after that instead of the story. At some point, this crosses over from telling the story to educating our readers or letting them know how educated WE are, neither of which works. I’m glad I’m not the only one with this weakness!

  2. I tend to let research hold me up too much. I want everything to be so realistic, whether I use it or not, that I just end up kind of petering out. So it gets me, just not same way. I’m just special, I guess. 😉

    1. Kat, I did that in my very first book. I had scads of books about Indians all over the house, and by the time I got to the part in the book about the Indian village, I was so sick of it, I just skipped most of it. Luckily my editor wanted me to add 70 pages later on, so I put in all the stuff I skipped the first time. That worked.

  3. Melissa, this can be a temptation in epic fantasy, too. Some authors invest so much time in creating their world that they want to share *all* the details. But that bogs the story down.

    1. Yes, it definitely does, and I’ve seen that over and over. I love a writer who tells me just enough so I can understand and follow, but not enough to make my eyes glaze over.

  4. That is worth engraving in the mind, Melissa! Soak up the knowledge and be enriched. Follow your advice and just the right amounts of expertise will trickle into the story. Don’t let the knowledge soak up the story!

    Thanks for the article!

    1. Excellent analogy, Kenyon, thanks. I like that, thinking of soaking up the knowledge and letting it leak out as need be, but not letting it soak up the story. Thank you!

  5. It seems political and espionage thrillers need to take heed, btw.

    I would much rather soak in the workings of how an ancient basket was weaved than to make my eyes splice details together on how a missile base’s code cards use camel hair fraggle-red light to detect the subtle changes in the hues of a cuticle over-exposed to the gamma rays of the sun just so the hero can slide the card into a door.

  6. Great post, Melisasa. I’ve found myself falling into that trap with my WIP. It’s so hard to let go of interesting research. I like your point that even if you don’t use the research, it enriches you. I’ll keep that in mind.

  7. It’s so tempting —all that wonderful research, fabulous insights, weird facts and arcane knowledge ripe for sharing. Sometimes authors fall in love with the back story and feel like it must be included in the book.

    Always good to remind each other to pause and ask whether that in-depth research is forwarding the plot or taking the reader on a detour.

  8. ‘Do the research and then let the story write into it what is relevant.’ I’d like to claim that for myself, but I can’t and I’ve wracked my brain for the origin of that little pearl; for the life of me I can’t remember whether I heard it or read it, or from whom it came.

    Excellent post, Melissa.

  9. Writers who do painstaking research for a novel face this dilemma: How do I make the story sound authentic without an information overload? Generally, I use my characters to convey the details by “showing them” engaged in the activity rather than explaining everything in long, boring paragraphs. It helps to keep the reader interested while still adding a sense of reality to the story. Some authors do this flawlessly. I’m still striving to be one of them!

  10. Ungh this is a hard one because I actually enjoy reading about those intricate, backstory things. I remember reading Swiss Family Robinson as a kid and being utterly enthralled by how an anaconda swallows a donkey. Can’t for the life of me remember what the plot was about but I’ve remembered some of those pointless details 50 odd years later.

    That said, I think a small detour is okay if it is actually important to the plot, or if it explains something intangible about the character, or provides a necessary bit of foreshadowing. It’s the avalanche of info that’s unpleasant so I’m sticking with my defence of backstory. 🙂

    Besides, there are strange people like me who need to have their imaginations fed in slightly different ways so don’t leave us out entirely!

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