using your research to enhance your story

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One thing that really impressed me about Jesse Bullington’s novel, The Sad Tale of the Brothers Grossbart, Lisa Mannetti’s novel, The Gentling Box, and Wayne Barlowe’s novel, God’s Demon, was the amount of research these fine writers did to make their tales authentic, yet their research never overwhelmed their stories. Bullington went so far as to include a bibliography, which was fascinating to read.

However, a bibliography isn’t always necessary. Because I did extensive research in my younger days on gypsies and the Rom, I was able to recognize a lot of Mannetti’s references in The Gentling Box, although she didn’t include a bibliography. In Barlowe’s novel, it was evident he was familiar with both Biblical and pseudepigraphal references to angels and demonology from his characters’ names and characteristics.

Bullington used his research to effectively convey both the speech patterns and historical events that motivated his characters and their decisions. Mannetti’s use of Rom attitudes and language interwoven with the religious beliefs of the surrounding countryside helped give her novel realism without detracting from the story.

While some of Barlowe’s demons were products of his imagination, he interwove into his tale fallen angels that have been documented. If the reader had never encountered the Book of Enoch or spent a great deal of time studying the Bible, their enjoyment of Barlowe’s novel would not be diminished. For those of us familiar with these works, another dimension was added to Barlowe’s story.

As I’m working through my own research on exorcism rites for a scene in my novel, I realize that in spite of the wealth of material I’ve been able to accumulate, the reader won’t see one tenth of the information I’ve read.

I developed Lucian’s speech patterns by reading early Christian texts; the names and characteristics of many of my Fallen can be found in the Book of Enoch, the Bible, and other pseudepigraphal sources that I’ve studied. In the actual exorcism, there will be none of the fascinating facts that I’ve found surrounding the rites involved, but what the reader will see are certain speech patterns and prayers that are necessary to carry my plot forward.

I have found it best to follow a few simple rules when researching a novel:

  1. Read novels by other writers who have successfully incorporated historical research into their stories. Notice you will see glimmers of the research beneath the story, but nowhere should your novel start to sound like a dissertation. When editing, I always look for sections where I sound like I’m teaching rather than telling a story. Those sections need to be edited out of the novel.
  2. Use the facts you discover only when those facts are absolutely relevant to your characters, their motivations, or to carry the plot forward.
  3. Narrow the focus of your research to the data you require; otherwise, your subject will overwhelm you. You don’t want to spend twenty years researching a novel.
  4. Ask for help. Stumped as to where to find information on exorcism rites within the Eastern Orthodox Church, I asked a knowledgeable friend for some sites and texts that would be relevant to my research. He sent me a lovely bibliography and several links thereby shortening my research time immensely. He also explained the philosophy of the Eastern Orthodox Church in regards to exorcisms.
  5. If you don’t know someone who is familiar with your subject, go to your local library. Reference Librarians are the greatest resource available to a writer, ask them questions, they love it.
  6. Realize in advance that a lot of the great research you do will be trimmed in the final edit.

The best research you can do will add another layer to your story, not overwhelm it. If you’re familiar with your topic, it will show through your setting, your characters, their motivations, and your plot.

What are you researching for your novel? Are you writing a thriller where you need to talk to law enforcement? Do you write fantasy, and if so, what folklore do you rely on for your stories? Do you do a lot of research for your stories or none at all?


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3 Responses to using your research to enhance your story

  1. Research is almost as much fun as writing! I’ve been delving into the Bedouin culture, Byzantium/Istanbul/Constantinople, steam technology, trains, coffee – I could do that all day (which is the danger, of course). I think it was in Stephen King’s On Writing where his wife, Tabitha, says, “Just because you did all that research doesn’t mean you have to bore me with it.” Your post really gets at the heart of that. I liked The Gentling Box for the reason you stated above. You get the feeling you are fully in the gypsy culture without being beaten over the head by it. Thanks for the post!

    • Teresa says:

      Hi Jonathan! If I could be anything, I think I would be a professional college student just so I could keep doing research and learning new things.

      Thanks for sharing your experiences.

  2. jenniferneri says:

    I am actually at a point in my novel where I am doing quite a bit of research.
    I am researching history of mental illness in women and sanitariums in the 1860s. While I love research, I am finding this particularity difficult because I am applying it to my character whom I hate to see suffer so ( and who is entirely fictional!).

    I will have to read Gentling Box – you make mention of it so often!

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