Friday, October 24, 2008

The Needle in the Haystack: Research

(Craft post X-posted from the Tri Mu blog.)

From the title, you probably think I'm going talk about searching out elusive information. Maybe even where I like to look or my favorite resources. Well, I hate to disappoint, but I'm not talking about finding the needle in the haystack. I'm talking about hiding the needle.

Okay, just to be clear, in this instance, the haystack is a manuscript, and the research is the needle. Why in the world would we hide our research?

Well, quite simply, writers learn everything they possibly can about a subject (especially if they have a tendency to get hooked on research--and it is a great procrastination tool if you are not careful) but the reader does not want the story to stop as the writer informs them of all the cool stuff learned during research. They want to absorb the necessary bits and move on.

So why the needle metaphor? Surely the reader needs to know more than that?

Sometimes, yes. Many times, no.

For instance, in Once Bitten the main character can pick locks. When I started writing this book I knew only the obvious about locks: that the ridges on the keys matched up with something inside the lock. Not so helpful. I spent many, many hours online reading wikis and "how to" guides about locks and lock picking. I learned about the pins inside locks (the average house lock has a double row of 6.) I learned about different picks, the obligatory tension wrench, and different methods for manipulating pins. I've never held lock picks, but, in theory, I have a pretty firm idea how to go about picking a lock. (I'm obviously hitting only general points here because well...this is not a paper on lockpicking. ^_^)

What happened to the information I gathered from my hours of research? I used it in about three lines of the manuscript. That's it. Just enough to establish credibility and be clear to the reader.

How much is too much, too little? That is a tough one, and one of the values of critique partners. If they get confused, you need more. If the scene drags, it's time to cut. After all, you don't want to throw an anvil in your haystack--an info dump will blend in about that well. So, dig in and do your research. Then refine it to the finest, sharpest needle, and hide it nice and deep in your manuscript. Your reader will thank you.

Have a good weekend everyone!

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