How Much Detail Is Enough For Your Story?

Here’s Shannon Donnelly with 12 tips to help you gather “just enough” details for your story!

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There’s a dilemma that faces every writer of fiction—when is enough enough? When do you need more details to help the reader “see” the scene? And when do the details become distracting devils?

The answer seems obvious: When setting interferes with the story—with pace or plot—it must be cut back.

But that’s too easy an out. Cut back on the details, and what’s left often edges too far into being a costume drama for any historical fiction.

Even stories set in modern times, like the Urban Fantasies I write—Burn Baby Burn and Riding in on a Burning Tire—need some level of research (hey, all that mythology has to be grounded).

A mixture of textures from physical environment is key to evoke the illusion of reality. A writer evokes memory through the identifiable details; specific smells, sights, sounds, textures, tastes involve a reader’s imagination.

Contemporary fiction can rely on some shorthand of shared memory. With historical fiction, however, common memory cannot be assumed. Few of us have the experience of riding in a carriage.

Is this an important detail in the historical fiction? It might be. The handling of a whip, the flick of the wrist that produces a snap, the means to recapture the thong back in the hand with a smooth gesture that does not produce an inadvertent jab on the reins, could reveal much about the person.

The devil’s not only in the details, it’s also the characterization.

So how do you do you get great research for your story and get the book done at the same time?

1 – Start with general research and move to specific.

General research is where you look for a grounding. Specific research is where there is one specific question to fact check. This comes up in EVERY book I’ve done. For example, in Riding in on a Burning Tire, part of the story centers on an ancient book. Now I could have just made something up, but I wanted resonance—so I actually used books HP Lovecraft made up (there’s no one better for spooky esoteric).

2 – Don’t let the research overwhelm the story.

Think of research like a spice. The right amounts add zest and a complex note. In an early draft of Border Bride I’d turned the story into a travel guide. The research had to be trimmed back since the facts were not the star.

3 – If you’re writing fiction, make things up.

Fiction is the art of telling plausible lies. Read Nora Robert’s Born in Fire and you will believe she took up glass-blowing—no, she invented that story, but she did so with plausible fiction.

4 – Confirm your sources.

Just because one historian says one thing, doesn’t make this true. Make sure at least two different sources say the same thing, three is better. And make sure your sources do not reference each other—that’s how historical lies are born.

5 – Look for fresh angles on old stories.

David Howarth discovered that no one had ever bothered to write about the Spanish Armada using the Spanish archives. His book, The Voyage of the Armada: The Spanish Story, became a best seller by documenting the monumental Spanish mismanagement (the fleet was doomed before it set sail, with rotten provisions since the fleet was so large by the time the last ship was provisioned, the first had all its supplies spoilt).

6 – Build your own library.

I’m the person who has not just a library card, but also supports my library with fines. I will check out a book, and keep it until the book I’m writing is done. Used books are also your friends—and there’s nothing as handy as being able to go and look this stuff up without leaving your house (or needing the Internet).

7 – Email or speak to experts.

Look into local history groups. Visit museums. Don’t be shy about writing, emailing or making a phone call—experts love to talk about their work. Be polite and always thank someone for their time.

8 – Do your own research.

If you want your story to be fresh that means you need to dig up the right details. There’s a wonderful scene in Laura Kinsale’s Flowers from the Storm that has the hero making chocolate—the details shine with accuracy and give an insight as well into to the character. That’s what the right details can do—they’ll make your characters and their world come alive.

9 – Use local libraries, including college and university libraries.

You can usually get a card by either taking a class, or sometimes universities offer cards to local residents. Libraries love to be used since it helps them get funding and reference librarians can be more than helpful with how to access their collection.

10 – Browse the Net.

I don’t use the Internet to fact check—not unless I can verify the information from at least three credible sources. However, Wikipedia is awesome as a starting place, particularly when a citation is well documented and referenced. Try typing in random URLs (but make sure you have a good virus scanner), or use quote marks in your search phrase to look for only that information. When you find a great site, bookmark it, and look for links out.

11 – Stimulate your writing by allowing yourself a few minutes of research.

Only do this when you’re stuck. For example, I needed another “shopping in London” scene in A Dangerous Compromise. A few minutes of browsing through my books and I found the SoHo Bazaar, so I was able to write that scene because I had the setting in mind.

12 – Start writing before you’ve done all the research.

You will never know enough. And if you know too much, you can swamp the reader. It’s sometimes better to go in and do the research as you need it.

The last thing I can add is to enjoy your research (but not too much). It’s a treasure hunt. But it’s also a means to an end.

About Shannon

shannondonnelly_nm1Shannon Donnelly’s writing has won numerous awards, including a RITA nomination for Best Regency, the Grand Prize in the “Minute Maid Sensational Romance Writer” contest, judged by Nora Roberts, RWA’s Golden Heart, and others.

Her writing has repeatedly earned 4½ Star Top Pick reviews from Romantic Times magazine, as well as praise from Booklist and other reviewers, who note: “simply superb”…”wonderfully uplifting”….and “beautifully written.”

BurningTire_finalHer newest book, Riding in on a Burning Tire, the second book in the Mackenzie Solomon, Demon/Warders Urban Fantasy series is just out from Cool Gus Publishing. And her next Regency romance, The Cardros Ruby, is due out in May 2013.

About Jenny Hansen

Avid seeker of "more"...More words, more creativity, More Cowbell! An extrovert who's terribly fond of silliness. Founding blogger at Writers In The Storm (http://writersinthestormblog.com). Write on!
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40 Responses to How Much Detail Is Enough For Your Story?

  1. Liz Flaherty says:

    Great post. Especially #12–sometimes the research is so much fun you forget to write!

  2. LauraDrake says:

    Great reminder, Shannon – I just realized I’ve forgotten to use all 5 senses lately in my WIP – since it’s about bull riding, smell is important!

  3. Julie Glover says:

    Thanks for all of the tips! And I’m glad to know that I’m not the only one who tells myself that my late book fines are just my way of supporting the library.

  4. Terrific, Shannon. I love the research aspect and at one point found myself so mired in the research, digging up facts I’d never use, that I just had to stop. At that point, I figured if I wrote a good story first, I could retrofit the details. That led to my concept of “Just in Time Research.” Right to your 11th & 12th points.

  5. Nice post and great tips! …and some wonderful reminders.🙂

  6. I need constant reminders that the facts, the scenery, the sounds and smells should all be supporting the story, not BEING the story.

    I love trivia, so one comment my best beta reader made on my WIP is that while as a friend she loves the trivia I toss in, as a reader, it annoyed her because it wasn’t about the story.

    This, it would seem, is a basic concept. Perhaps there’s some hope I’ll eventually grasp it.

  7. How do you do it? Every post seems to be timed perfectly. I am writing a novel loosely based on my family’s history that starts in WWII France. I’ve done some research but don’t want the facts of the war to be what drives the plot. I want my grandmother’s character and her actions (influenced by the facts of life in Paris at that time) to be the focus.

    Your post helped me sort out both how to balance that and how to more effectively do my research (since she is long long and can’t tell me about what life was like in Paris in the 1930s and 40s).

    Thanks!

  8. Shannon, as always … a great post. I think the setting, the research of subjects and the newness of what we put into the story should blen like yarns we weave into a cloth. Or my favorite analogy … like the instruments in an orchestra. Do you want to hear all the base all the time, or do you want a blend of base and treble? The blend of string or horn instruments with the occassional solo artist perhaps.

    Also, I put certain research items into a note doc and then as I go along I add to them. You’re right. Sometimes, it’s a pleasant break to go back into research while you’re in the middle of the writing. Thanks again🙂

  9. fcmalby says:

    Thank you for an insightful post.

  10. Candy Korman says:

    Fabulous post! Very insightful and useful.

  11. This is a wonderful post. In a recent book, I had my H/H traveling from Venice to Dijon. One of my CP’s told me she could us it for a travel guide. Sigh. Back to cutting. I am shamlessly reblogging you all this week as I try to finish my WIP.

  12. Sandy Kenny says:

    Thank you for such wonderful advice!

  13. NancyS.Goodman says:

    Reblogged this on Rakes Rogues and Romance and commented:
    Shannon Donnelly has so many helpful tips of the trade for writers. If you ever get a chance to take one of her courses-do so. Her help was invaluable for me

  14. Great Tips! I’m curious on how much info is needed when writing sequel novels.

    Blogging A to Z Challenge http://www.shellygoodmanwright.com/apps/blog/show/25344959-commit-to-do-it-

    • SD Writer says:

      Sequels are tough because you want enough detail for the new folks, but not so much that you bore readers who’ve been through the other books. If you make the writing really clean and really interesting, I think that’s the best way to do it — make it something everyone WANTS to read.

  15. Often it depends on the subject matter. Nora Roberts did a wonderful series on a wine making family. I enjoyed reading about the trials of joys of the vinters. I read another book where the romance is interupted to ramble on about the various type of beers, their ingredients, how they are made, etc. It felt like the author said, “I got all this stuff, I need to put it in somewhere.” I never finished the beer book.

    I wondered if this was because I have never liked beer. LOL I bought a romance, not a DIY beer brewing manual.

  16. Liza OConnor says:

    Interesting if not sometimes contradictory advice: get 3 sources/ make it up.

    • SD Writer says:

      That’s actually not contradictory. If you’re looking for a fact — a real fact — you want the real deal (not a copy of bad information, or you’re just being lazy and helping along the myth). However, sometimes fiction needs you to bend fact — when I do this, I always put in an author note that I’ve done this. It’s about handling different situations different ways.

  17. Darlene says:

    Great advice. I write for kids and they don’t want too much description and background. They want action so I constantly have to cut back after all my research.

  18. Laura Broach says:

    Great post. Made me think of Michener, the master of historical fiction and one of my favorite authors. I can’t imagine the amount of time he must have spent on research!

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  21. Eric says:

    Hi, just wanted to mention, I liked this blog post.
    It was practical. Keep on posting!

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