April 1st, 2013

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!


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.

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