Jeanne: How Much Research Is Enough?

The Screwtape LettersLast Saturday, I was hiking with a friend who was around for the full pre-publication lifespan of The Demon Always Wins. (I started working on it in May, 2012 and didn’t publish until September, 2018.)

She mentioned that she’s reading Dante’s Inferno.

In preparation for writing The Demon Always Wins, I read:



  • Dante’s Inferno
  • Milton’s Paradise Lost
  • The Book of Job (multiple times)
  • The Screwtape Letters by C.S. Lewis
  • Books about the Book of Job.
  • Critiques of The Inferno.
  • Critiques of Paradise Lost.

The protagonist of The Demon’s in the Details is a painter. Since I know doo-wah about art, before I started working on it, I read several books about art, including a novel based on a young boy’s fictional encounter with Georgia O’Keeffe, for whom my heroine is named.

As I was reviewing all of this, I thought, “Jeez, no wonder it takes me forever to write a book.”

It’s not unusual, in the romance industry, for writers to publish a book every couple of months.

I’m guessing they don’t do a survey of Western Literature in preparation for each one.

10 thoughts on “Jeanne: How Much Research Is Enough?

  1. I’m currently reading ’99 Percent Mine’, and the protagonist’s best friend sews (she has her own underwear line that she makes at home). I’m sure that if the author doesn’t sew, she definitely knows someone who does, and knows them well. It’s subtle, but accurate. So yes, I appreciate good research, but I don’t want to be hit over the head with it; on the other hand, I don’t want to trip over things that could easily be researched but give the impression that the writer is uneducated or an idiot – and I think we’ve all read books like that!

    What does irritate me (and I blame her publisher) is the fact that despite living in Canberra, Sally Thorne’s books are set in unnamed American cities. While we’re sorting out the whole diversity thing, having protagonists who aren’t always white (which is WONDERFUL), can we also sort out the location thing? I’d rather an author set their book where they are most comfortable, not just set it in some US small town/city because that’s what the audience expects (which I suspect is more likely to be a publisher expectation). I’d like books to be set wherever they land, and not to be ‘this is a Scottish Highlands book! This is an Australian Outback book!’.

    • I agree. One of the things that cracked me up about Fifty Shades of Gray was that the Washington state setting was clearly not E.L. James home territory. At an early point in the story, Anastasia has a mini-meltdown and her roommate is shocked because, as Ana says, she’s not used to seeing Ana “throw my toys from the pram.” I knew what that meant when I read it, but I’m willing to bet there were a lot of readers who were mystified.

      My books so far have been set in north Florida, where my eldest sister lives so I’ve been there a number of times and Sedona, AZ, where I spent a week on vacation doing research, The next one is set in the Twin Cities, where I lived for three years. and the fourth will be in Columbus, OH, where my daughter lives. I’ve read writing craft blogs that insist you can get everything you need about unknown places from books and Google maps, but I disagree. I think you need to see and smell and taste and hear the place first-hand.

      Which is why I need to start writing books set in Paris and London.

      • Argh. I think how much location and setting detail is ideal can vary a lot between readers, and I might be the one reader who isn’t crazy about a lot of that. In my critique group, two of us are writing books set in San Francisco. My friend has her characters walking down specific streets and turning left at specific corners to go to specific restaurants. I bog down in this kind of detail; it yanks me right out of the story. In my WIP, my characters “go to Ocean Beach” or “the Embarcadero,” and that’s it, which is the level of detail that I like and that you really could get from a map or a Google search.

        I read an interview with a mystery author (whose name I’ve forgotten) who set her books in Boston. She said her readers were constantly writing her that her characters, if they turned left at that corner, would be driving the wrong way down a one-way street. She said that not only was it hard to get all the details right, but cities change, so what might be correct at press time might not be correct a few years later.

        Unless setting is a character, of course. If your child character has to fall down a mining shaft, the type of which is found only in the Gogebic Range of northern Wisconsin, then landscape details, of course, are important.

        Which is why one should write novels set in Paris and London. One really, really should!

        • This is the advantage of setting a story in Paris or London, but 200 years ago. LOL. No such thing as one-way streets, and a map that’s roughly from the right era will serve you well.

          As for research, puh-leeze. It seems like it’s all I do. There’s no such thing as reading for pleasure in my world (in fact, there’s no such thing as reading in my world right now — lots of stuff going on at home). We’re starting a renovation and putting in new floor-to-ceiling bookcases so I have room for my craft and research books. They’re seriously starting to pile up. What I had started reading BEFORE the reno began was a book on the history of the black person in England, a book on how the news from Waterloo reached London, and two others on various social things in the Regency period. I also recently finished one on medical “advances” during the Georgian era (really, no such thing), and a history of Victorian undergarments. Because who doesn’t want to read about vintage knickers?

        • Kay, I agree with you on excessive details – I hate being clobbered over the head with detailed street directions. It’s just not natural – and probably falls into the category of telling not showing.

          I’ve been thinking about writing a fantasy novel, because as long as I’m consistent, no one can contradict me on the details!

        • I tend to be pretty sparse on description of all sorts, and setting description most of all. Generally the bare minimum to ground the reader. No point in spending time writing and polishing what most readers are going to skip anyway.

  2. Good research, though, is a delight on its own terms, and can provide new story turns and twists. Sometimes you have to read through a hundred little details before you find the ONE little detail that brings your scene to light in an accurate fashion. Bunny Blavatsky’s story is the one I’ve done the most research on (abandoned, unfortunately, for now), and half way through my research, I found a great opening scene — some lady died in the opera.

    There were two or three short articles about it in the newspapers in New York, so I got it from a couple of angles. Apparently, she had to see this very famous opera singer (when you write The Great Arvotti, everyone knows he’s hot stuff). Her husband got her tickets but they were up like three floors with no elevator (they did have elevators at the time, just not there). She died of a heart attack in one of the lounge areas of the women’s restrooms (the Student Union at my university still had a lovely lounge with fainting couches in the restroom, at least when I attended). The whole scene was basically lifted wholesale from the newspaper, and I just added flourishes and a ghost. And Bunny, of course.

    Writers take a little bit from here, and a little bit from there, and they just never know which bit of research is going to prove to be the key to telling the story.

    (-: Which makes research terribly dangerous, because it’s very easy to justify “just one more Google Search” before writing. Ah well, it kept me off the streets for a lovely couple of years.

    • I spent four or five years doing research for the story I wrote that was set in 1894 in Minnesota lumber country. I finally realized it was time to stop when I read a newspaper article from the town paper and instantly recognized a young woman who had just returned from a visit with her aunt out East as someone who died in the forest fire that consumed the town on September 1st of that year.

      Research is important, but you can’t let it become an end in itself.

  3. Pingback: Michaeline: Random Writing Advice – Eight Ladies Writing

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