The dilemma of research

When I do research I often find myself overwhelmed by the amount and scope of information out there. I could spend dozens of hours in libraries and on the internet pulling together facts about the topics in my novel. To preserve my writing time and my sanity, I have to remind myself not to get lost in all the details. Here’s what I try to keep in mind when I do my research

Disorganized books piling one another

Not every detail matters…

It’s good to remember not every detail you come across in your research will turn out to be relevant to the book you’re writing. I spent some time researching heroin, because there’s a character in my novel who is an addict. I found a lot of information out there, but most of it, like the prevalence of heroin use in Europe and the neurotransmitters involved in the breakdown of opiates in the brain, wasn’t relevant to my work. I had to make sure not to get caught up in the details that didn’t actually matter to me.

…but some details do

The right kinds of details can make for nice touches. Since my novel is a crime novel, I did a lot of research on drugs. One of the most useful things I learned was what different kinds of drugs look like. For example, the picture here is of crack cocaine. Being able to describe a particular drug can really bring a scene with drug use to life, and make it stand out. I also spent some time learning to walk silently like a character of mine so I could figure out how hard a skill it was to acquire and what the movements of the feet felt like.

Crack cocaine

Crack cocaine

So how do I know the difference?

One way to sort through all that information is to consider the scope of your story. In my crime story, the criminals have gained so much power and resources that law enforcement for the most part looks the other way. So when I research drug smuggling and contract killing, I focus on the process of committing the crime, and skim the section about how these murderers can be caught.

The second method I use to sort out what information matters for my story is to look for the emotional context. It’s one thing to go to Wikipedia and read over the list of effects heroin has on the brain and body. It’s another thing to listen to or read an addict’s account of what it’s like to get high. I promise, the latter will is much more valuable to a storyteller than the former.

Keep it in perspective

It’s important to find relevant information, but also remember each person is unique, and each person has a unique perspective and experience. This is true of every fully realized character we write. For example, if you look up a mental illness like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, you’ll get a dry list of symptoms. It’s up to you to make up a complex character and figure out which symptoms work for the person you’ve created, rather than using the research as an outline and filling in the blanks.

In the end, we’re not scientists, we’re not teachers, we’re storytellers. Objective facts are a great place to start, but in the end, the story has to come from the heart.

Books by Ibrahim Husain Meraj (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Crack street dosage by An employee of the DEA (Taken from a US government Web site.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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