Research: what to add, when to stop – Louisa George

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By Louisa George

Back in the Middle Ages when I started thinking about a writing career I tried my hand at an historical novel. Woefully slow and leaden it charted the life of a woman who was in the Crimean War with Florence Nightingale. So far, so… well… truth was, I didn’t know much about life then, about the clothes or the things they surrounded themselves with, or the state of the roads or hygiene or social mores…so I left my Word document and skipped over to the trusty search engines.♥

When your writing takes you on an odyssey of hours and hours of Googling and visiting many, many different webpages and then ‘Oh, look… shiny over there’ which takes you on yet another detour to another kinda-related website and three notebooks full of details and not another single word written — you know it’s time to refocus your priorities.

Happily, that historical novel never saw light of day and I became an author for Mills and Boon. Medical Series. Fourteen books down and I’m still trying to tame my research dragon. Even now I can spend hours and hours finding everything I need to know about the management of bilateral talipes using the Ponseti method or cardiac bypass surgery for my next story. However, I won’t let my research needs drag me away from my writing time; when I need to find something out I leave a gap in my manuscript that looks like this: <FILL IN DETAIL> and I move on. Then when I have completed my word count for the day I will pop over to Google and research to my heart’s content.

Not all my books these days are medical romances, but even in general contemporary fiction we need to be authentic (you do not want to see my search history!! It is important to know how to kill someone with a pair of tights and a can opener. And how to buy illegal drugs on the Dark net…).

Google maps is my friend for settings, I love that I can visit a place and virtually walk along a road, see the types of shops there, even the weather, the kind of flowers in people’s gardens. Travel blogs tell me how a place smells and sounds. The Mayo clinic has fabulous medical information for both patients and medics. YouTube shows actual operations and physical therapies … listen to the words being spoken and use a few of them (but make sure you use them appropriately) to add authenticity to your work. Support groups have how-tos and survivors’ stories that will inform your emotional punch.

In my new women’s fiction release I cover the sensitive subjects of the breast cancer gene and adoption. I have spent many hours researching. I could easily info dump whole chapters on choices and options and gene testing, but I’m guessing I wouldn’t be the only person who found this less than entertaining. Unfortunately I do run across books where the author has obviously done a heap of learning and wants me to know she knows her stuff.

Thing is, readers don’t want to know everything there is to know on a subject or about a place or time period, they want to feel I am being authentic, they want to know I’m informed. Indeed, I want to be perceived as knowing something about my subject matter, not necessarily everything. I have to remember I’m not writing a thesis, I’m writing a story about characters and relationships. I don’t need to hit my readers over the head with information, I just need to sprinkle some facts through. Enough to create drama and conflict (around life/death decisions, for example a difficult birth or someone who won’t stop bleeding), and to increase tension on the page. The research stuff is dressing for the main course, which, for me and for the readers, is the journey of the protagonists.

Knowing what detail to add and when to stop is as crucial as pacing and setting. Don’t do overkill. Read your chapter through and ask yourself, ‘what do I need to show? what is extraneous to the plot or character development?’ And try not to spend your writing time chasing shiny things on the internet!

Award-winning author Louisa George has been an avid reader her whole life. In between chapters she managed to fit in a BA degree in Communication Studies, trained as a nurse, married her doctor hero and had two sons. Now, she spends her days writing chapters of her own in the medical romance, contemporary romance and women’s fiction genres. To date, she has 19 books available in ebook/print. The Other Life of Charlotte Evans is out now.


1 Comment

  1. alison brodie

    September 26, 2017 at 10:17 pm

    Great advice for all writers.

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