INTEGRATING BACKGROUND & RESEARCH INTO YOUR STORY.
Here’s the problem... You know that old adage “Write What You Know?“ It’s garbage. Or rather, writing what you know means that you have exactly one story to tell, and unless you happen to live a particularly interesting life, it’s probably a boring one. If you have a dream of being a working writer, then you’re quickly going to be writing what you don’t really know. In fact, if you’re a writer of science fiction and fantasy, it’s not even possible to write what you know...
So... You want to write compelling and believable stories, right? This means you will end up doing a fair amount of research so that you can at least sound like you’re writing something you know. That’s true of short story writers, and especially true of novelists. It doesn’t matter in which genre you’re writing: unless you’re writing about characters who are exactly like you, who are doing exactly what it is that you do, and who live exactly where and when you live, then you’re going to need to do research.
And you do that research because the knowledge you gain is both critical and vital to the story you’re telling. It’s that information that will make your characters, your setting, and the movements of your plot solid, real, and genuine.
The problem? You have to impart that knowledge to the reader seamlessly and painlessly, without boring them or killing the flow of the story. That weaving of research information into your story, unfortunately, is not a trivial task.
Do a great job of weaving, and your story will sing because the characters are full-fleshed and believable and the setting is solid and real. Do a poor job of weaving, and the reader will fall through the warp and woof and out of your story, and all your work will be wasted.
There is very little middle ground.
So how well can you weave your research into your fiction? This is an issue with every genre of fiction (though it is especially critical in science fiction, fantasy, and historical works). Drift from characters who are exactly like you -- in gender, in age, in race, in economic class, in education, in background, in occupation, in mindset, in beliefs and attitudes -- and the more research you must do. If (like me) you’re a middle-aged, middle class male, and you want to convincingly portray a female protagonist in her twenties, you’d better do your homework. How would she dress? What type of slang might she use? What type of technology would be second nature to her?
The more you drift from the here and now in setting, in either place or time, the more research you must do. If you place your story in the city in which you live, in the present day, then maybe you can get away without doing too much research. Place the story in another city, especially a large, well-known one, and you’d better get street maps and tourist guides and hit the library, because otherwise it won’t be convincing. Move your locale to another continent, and you’ve substantially increased your research demands. Move the locale to another continent and another century, and you’ve truly compounded the issue. In fact, you might not be able to get your character out of bed convincingly: tell me -- what did a proper woman in Paris in 1870 wear?
The more you drift from plot elements that you’ve personally experienced, the more research you must do. Did someone set a fire to propel your plot? Unless you’re an arson investigator in real life, I doubt you’re familiar with the terminology and the procedures of arson: what type of plant did they use, what kind of accelerant, what type of trigger?
Let’s take a look at some of the common errors new (and even experienced) writers fall into when they try to weave the research into the story they’re telling...
I love that term, which comes from the Clarion workshops and the Sterling/Shiner Turkey City Lexicon... An infodump is when an author creates an undigestible lump of exposition to explain everything that the reader might possibly need to know. To put it another way, the author is essentially placing appendix material in the middle of exposition. To put it yet another way, the author is forcing the characters to stand in frozen positions while a text-based ‘voice-over’ throws in backstory information that should have been presented somewhere else.
Let’s look at a quick example:
Corwin saw the creature — one of the murderous Barak — slathering before him, and he shuddered. He gripped his sword tighter in his hand as the monster readied itself to leap.
The Barak had been a pestilence on the land for over a century. Some said they were magical creatures, created when some sorcerer’s spell went wrong. Others said they were the terrible offspring of black dragons and foul creatures from deep inside the earth. Covered with slime, with enormous fangs and claws that could rip apart the finest chain mail, the Barak were the most feared of beasts for travelers in this land. They were solitary creatures, at least; mating but once a year during the Planting Season. Then the males would indulge in fierce and deadly battles before the watching eyes of the equally dangerous females. Those wounded in the rituals were left to recover or die; the victor would mate briefly and return to his own territory...
Meanwhile, while the author drones on and on, our Barak is sitting there quivering and ready to pounce, and giving the writer the evil eye... Right now, all we need to know is that the Barak thinks Corwin would be a good lunch, and that Corwin had better defend himself or he will be a deli snack.
It’s not just in speculative fiction that the issue arises, though. Try this:
Perhaps it was the moonlight. All that Eric knew was that when he touched her shoulder, he wanted his hand to remain there. “Deb...” She looked at him, and her gaze was fragile. Eric leaned in toward Deborah as her lips parted. She didn’t move away, not this time.
Eric and Deborah had been friends since the sixth grade, when Eric first saw the shy young girl who had just moved to their neighborhood. Over the years, through grade school and then high school, and now college, they’d remained friends despite the occasional spat, despite the relationships they’d had with other people, despite (or perhaps because of) Deborah’s parents’ divorce and the death of Eric’s mom in an automobile accident during his senior year. In the last month they’d come to realize that there was something more there. They’d both been invited to Jack’s party...
Look, guys, come on and kiss, already! The backstory of Eric and Deborah isn’t important at this moment. With the infodump, the writer has lost any momentum and any erotic tension in the story
“As you know, Bob...”
Another Clarion/Turkey City term... An “As You Know, Bob” is when the characters, in dialogue, explain to each other things that they both know perfectly well in order to convey that information to the reader. This is a tempting strategy sometimes, since it seems to avoid the problems of the infodump by moving the necessary information into dialogue, and is surprisingly easy to fall into. Here’s a silly example:
“As you know, Bob, the car keys allow me to both unlock the car and start the engine...”
None of us would do that, right? It’s obvious how wrong that sounds because we all know how a car works. But start to move away from your comfort zone as a writer, and you’re far more likely to fall into this trap. It’s particularly common in science fiction and fantasy, but again can happen in any genre
Bob and Tim stood before the massive door in the side of a mountain. “The Forbidden Passage at last,” Bob said, “and I’m going through.” “But Bob,” Tim answered, “you can’t. Anyone who enters in there is never seen again!”
Bob and Tim both know perfectly well this place and the history behind it, but the reader doesn’t and that’s why it’s tempting to have them tell each other what they already both know... Yes, the author has to find a way to get this information to the reader so that there’s the proper tension in the scene, but there are other ways to do it than with unconvincing dialogue.
Bob and Mary, friends for many years, were talking when suddenly Bob grimaced and doubled over holding his back. “Oh, Bob,” Mary exclaimed, “that old football injury that has plagued you since the title game fourteen years ago is flaring up again, I see.”
Here’s what Mary would really say in that situation: “Oh, Bob. Not again...” And that’s all she’d say. Again, we can see why it might be important to get this information to the reader, especially if Bob’s back injury comes into play when he’s forced, four chapters later, to carry Mary from the wreckage of her car. Still, the author must find a better way to get the information to the reader -- something that won’t cause the reader to grimace.
There are dozens of ways to avoid “As You Know, Bobs.” If nothing else, find a convenient character who doesn’t know the situation, so the explanation makes sense. Have Bob visit the doctor, who does a quick check-up on his spine to see how the cortisone shots are helping. Have Bob and Mary watch a video of that game and the play where Bob was hurt... The possibilities are endless -- and most of them are better.
The “Nowhere” story:
Actually, the Nowhere Story is what happens when a writer hasn’t done the proper research. Because the writer can’t visualize the setting with any detail, the story feels as if it’s taking place in a generic room in a generic building in a generic city with generic characters. And because the setting of a story lends depth to both the characters and the plot, a Nowhere Story loses much of its emotional impact on the reader. Here’s an example:
Fred walked over to the table. He stood there a moment and then sat in the chair. Polly was standing at the window; seeing him, she came over and sat across from him. There was a plate of fruit of the table; Fred moved it aside so he could see Polly better.
“We must get past this,” he told her.
“Yes, I know.”
She said nothing more; after a time, Fred rose and went to the window. Looking out, he spoke over his shoulder. “I want you to know that this bothers me, too.” His glance traveled around the room before settling on her again.
Tell me: how old is Fred or Polly? What do they look like? Where and when are they living? There really aren’t any details here -- certainly not enough to help the reader truly see Fred, Polly, and this room. Mind you, you can make the opposite mistake and put too many details in a scene, and it’s also true that a reader will supply many of the details for the writer. But this is too sparse. There’s nothing in this on which to ground us in place and time.
The “Costume Drama”:
The “Costume Drama” is yet another symptom of “not enough research” by the author. It's when the author decides that simply by putting a cowboy hat on the character, all of the readers will believe that they're in the Old West -- but the characters in a story are described, or will say or do something, in a way that is inappropriate to the story’s place or time or the character’s background. Shakespeare’s Hamlet would not say “Wow, Gertie, what you're doing really sucks.” If we read that, the dialogue would throw us entirely out of the story -- no matter if Hamlet is wearing the proper costume or not.
This mistake, however, is surprisingly easy to do, with even moderate shifts in time or place. A character in a story set in 1970 who opens a can of soda will have to deal with the pull tab that’s now on their finger... and a writer who either didn’t experience pull tabs directly or who has forgotten them or who hasn’t done their research will forget to mention the pull tab at all -- and a fair number of their readers will fall out of the story as a result, because the writer has destroyed the illusion that it’s 1970.
Move it forward a decade or so, and have President Reagan order a staffer to “Look it up on the web.” Well, in Reagan’s presidency, there was no web... and any savvy reader will know that.
In a Nowhere Story, the lack of details kills the story; in a Costume Drama, it’s the wrong details that cause the problems. Ask any established writer, and I’m certain they’ll have tales for you of a reader who caught them in some niggling detail error. It’s amazing what your readers will know -- which is why you have to do the research...
“Name Brand” Settings:
This is the lazy writer’s way of creating atmosphere in a story: excessive use of name brands in an attempt to create realism. This is, in essence, a modern “Costume Drama...”
Nicholas slipped on his North Face jacket, then placed his iPod into the pocket and put in his Shure EC3 headphones. U2’s Vertigo clamored in his ears. He decided he’d walk and break in his new Nikes rather than take the Passat...
Yeah, the details are right. We’ll grant you that. We’ll even grant you that a few (let me repeat that word: few) brand names can help set the timeframe and situation. But a little goes a long, long way... It’s easy to drown the reader in endless name brands, and make your writing sound more like a catalogue than a piece of fiction.
Front-loading is usually a novelist’s problem, though I’ve seen it in short stories as well. This is when the writer packs all the research, every bit of atmospheric detail, the entire backstory, history, and so on in the first few pages of the story... leaving the rest of the story bereft. It’s not really possible to give an example here -- first because front-loading isn’t something you do in one paragraph but over several pages, and secondly because if you do a lot of front-loading, your story never sees print.
Why? Because in front-loading, you slow down the story’s natural flow. You might start in medias res, but everything halts not long after while you spend time describing the scenery. You might even paint that scenery with some of the most poetic language yet seen... but poetry is not what most readers want in their fiction. Front-loading weakens the bond with the characters, which is what a story is truly about, and also weakens your setting through the remainder of the book... because you’ve already described everything to death. Do front-laoding too densely, and you lose the reader..
The “Three Bears” Syndrome:
In one sense, all the errors above can be lumped together as variations of one or another of the Three Bears Syndrome. So what is the Three Bears Syndrome?
• You can give the reader too little information... (Baby Bear Syndrome)
• You can give the reader too much information... (Papa Bear Syndrome)
• Or you can give the reader “Just the right amount...”
Bear in mind (sorry... couldn’t resist...) the caveat that one reader’s “too little information” is another reader’s “too much,” and “too much” might be “just right” for yet another reader. In the end, you as the writer are the final judge of whether you’ve managed to get just the right amount of information and detail to the reader to communicate best. But we can look at possible examples:
Baby Bear example: “They lived in Cincinnati. Cheryl had moved in with Tom not long after college...”
That might work, but “they lived in Cincinnati” seems rather sparse, and doesn’t tell us much about the characters’ choice of place to reside.
Papa Bear example: “They lived in Cincinnati on Hamilton Avenue, near where it crossed North Bend and just over a mile south of the Ronald Reagan Cross-County Highway, in a three-story brick house with tan trim and a deck out back. The house had been built in 1929, on what had once been the Wood family’s dairy farm back in the late 1800s. The farm had been finally sold by the Woods to the city in 1928, which had parceled it out to developers to create subdivisions, the last section built in the late 1940s...”
All right, now we have WAY too much information, much of which seems irrelevant to any possible story line, and which certainly slows down the pace. Unless the background history of the subdivision plays into the plot of the story somehow, this is Papa Bear. Somewhere in the middle is just the right amount of information to give the reader.
Strategies for Weaving
So far we’ve looked at what can go wrong when you try to incorporate your research into your writing. Let’s take a look at the strategies which help the writer make decisions which will result in a richer work. There’s one question that should always be paramount in the writer’s mind -- as you look at the notes you compiled, or scan the copied pages from books you borrowed from the library, or examine the notes you’ve scribbled in the margins of your research material.
“Do I Need This?”
You find all this wonderful stuff in research and/or worldbuilding, and you want to get it all in, but... The trick is to only put in exactly what’s necessary for the reader to understand the story or know the characters. Unless that delicious little piece of obscure detail actually adds to the tale or supports the characterization, leave it out! This will avoid frontloading and infodumps.
Yeah, yeah. I know. You did all this work and took three hundred pages of closely-scribbled notes and interviewed fourteen people, and have a hundred dollars in fines from overdue library books. You want all the effort to show up in your fiction.
It will. If you’ve steeped yourself in your characters and your time and place, it will show, whether or not you use everything. If you really must use every last scrap, well, I suppose that’s what an appendix is for. You can dump all that ornate and overly-detailed false history of the world in there. Heck, I’m the type of reader who will probably even read it.
But don’t put it in the story itself. Not unless it’s absolutely necessary. Instead...
Use The Right Details
Think of a play you might have seen. How did the production make you feel like you were in some other place and time? It was the painted backdrop of the set, the carefully-chosen props the set designer and director chose, the deliberate costuming of the characters, and the crafted cadence of their speech.
The little details. In both short fiction and novels, you use do the same thing. What you want to achieve is “verisimilitude” -- and that translates as a “simulation of reality.” Not reality itself. You create verisimilitude in your stories by creative use of just the right details: enough to help the readers form a picture in their heads, but not so much that you’re doing all the work for them.
The reader will “fill in the blanks” if you give them enough to work with. In fact, a reader will generally have a fairly strong picture in their mind of your setting and your characters -- which is why, when we see a movie of a beloved story or novel, we tend to say “that doesn’t look like the character at all” or “Wow, that’s exactly what I thought that place looked like...”
In fact, a ‘right detail’ will do double duty -- it will make for a better story, and it will make for a happier, more satisfied reader. You’ll usually know it too: when you read what you’ve just written, and the scene ‘snaps’ into place in your mind, when it just feels right, you probably have done the job. Train yourself to find those ‘right details,’ not only in real life, but in the research you do.
Remember the “Nowhere” story example above? Here’s a portion of the same scene, only with some of the right details in place:
Fred hobbled over to the table, the cane he was using since the operation tapping on the polished hardwood. The sound echoed from the bare, pale white walls; he found himself wishing once again that Polly would put up some pictures, anything to break the snowy expanse. The table was Scandinavian, something she’d picked up from Ikea: functional, clean, modern lines. He preferred more ornate furniture. He stood there a moment, then sat in the straight-backed chair which was as clean and cold as the rest of the room. Polly sat across from him; he caught a whiff of her perfume. There was a blue pottery bowl set carefully in the exact center of the table, piled with Golden Delicious apples and a single pear, all so highly polished that they looked artificial. Fred slid it aside so he could see Polly better; in moving the bowl, he could hear the glaze scratch at the table’s finish, and he saw Polly grimace.
Feel the difference? Now we can see those characters. We know something about them; we’re part of their lives. We get the sense that Polly is a bit of a fanatic: she wants everything sparse and bare and organized to a fault, so much so that the pottery bowl has to be set in the exact center of the table... It’s no longer a “Nowhere” story; it has a definitive setting and the beginnings of round, full characters inhabiting it.
Description is one thing. But it’s when the characters actually start to speak that we truly begin to hear them and understand them. Voice and inflection and cadence tell us so much about a person, and it’s your dialogue that often makes or breaks the characterization in a reader’s mind. When a character says “That’s like totally cool, dude,” we begin to know them. We have a hint of their age, their personality, their mindset.
Just as with the right details, the dialogue can lend verisimilitude... Here’s a snippet of dialogue from Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice...
“Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and that some of his servants are to be in the house in a fortnight.”
We have the immediate sense that this person is speaking as a person in that era and time should speak. We have a few right details in there as well (the “chaise and four,” which is a term for a four-wheeled, closed carriage with four horses attached, with the driver riding ‘postillion’ on one of the horses; the use of “Michaelmas,” a term not much used now for the Feast of St. Michael the Archangel on September 29). This all works together to make us believe in this character. Note the utter lack of “As You Know, Bobs” in the dialogue with the terms from that day and age.
If you’re writing a story set in the same time and place, that is how your characters should speak... By the way, did you know that the rules of etiquette suggest that men must stop wearing beige trousers on Michaelmas until Whitsun/Pentecost the next year? Just thought you might be interested...
Dialogue has additional uses beyond characterization and setting. Dialogue can give the reader necessary information...
“Why, I thought you knew, dear. James isn’t married any longer. Why, he and Lisa divorced last year.” Mrs. Humphrey smiled knowingly. “Ah, and what’s that thoughtful look I see in your eyes now, Sarah?”
This is not an “As You Know, Bob” since Sarah didn’t realize that James was a free man. And we also learn that Sarah might well still be interested in James. And we get all that without having to resort to exposition.
Speaking of which...
“Shotgun” Your Exposition
That’s another good tactic. Just as a shotgun scatters pellets in a wide area for the most coverage, you should do the same: scatter the information you must give a reader, rather than blowing a large single hole in the story with an infodump or piling on a dump truck full of front-loading.
Here’s my own rule of Thumb: if your description/exposition goes more than two or three paragraphs, you need to break it up. Have your characters talk a bit. Let some action take place. Move them around. Again: remember that if it doesn’t need to be there, it’s better left out! Remember that while you’re describing something, your characters are standing still.
Know Your Audience
Let’s say you’re writing a story set in 1153 England. Here’s a piece of truth: unless you happen to have a Doctorate in Medieval History yourself, it is not possible for you as a writer to satisfy a Medieval History Professor. Heck, even if you do have the Doctorate, given the typical squabbling in academia, you’re not going to satisfy that professor. It’s not going to happen. You can research the book for a year, but you’re going to slip up. You’re going to mention some technology that didn’t show up in England until 1167, and the Medieval Professor is going to (gleefully) call you on it. You’re going to have them use terms that didn’t exist then. You’re going to describe their clothing, and they’ll be wearing clothes that were only used in Germany, not England.
And you know what? That’s okay. You don’t have to be able to fool a Medieval History Professor. All you have to do is fool your average reader. And if you’ve done your research well and correctly, you will.
Here’s the situation: the more ‘common’ the subject or setting, the better you need to know it. In other words, the more likely it is that a large pool of your readers is going to know the occupation of the character or the setting of your story or the elements of your plot, the more important it is that you get it all right. Set your story in Chicago and mention the Empire State Building, and pretty much everyone is going to catch the mistake.
Some Small Things To Bear In Mind...
Using Dialect: Your characters may not speak English, or they may speak it with a distinct accent, cant, or set of slang terms. In fact, if you’re writing science fiction or fantasy, your characters may not even speak a human language at all. But your average reader does speak English. And that’s what they expect to read. So when you have unusual terms , you should keep the “Three Bears” in mind and use touches of those terms to add flavor and sound. Those touches ideally should be few, and ideally any use of terminology should be understandable in context -- without having to use an infodump or an “As You Know, Bob” to give an explanation to the reader...
Other ways to place background, setting, atmosphere, and necessary research:
* Flashbacks: use sparingly, but flashbacks can do the job of ‘showing’ the backstory rather than having you tell it. If it’s a particularly important scene, that might be the way to do it...
* Shifting POV characters: if you’re doing your job as a writer correctly, each character will have a unique response to a scene. Find the right viewpoint character to describe what it is you want to communicate to the reader.
* Interior thoughts: Again, sparingly, this can give the reader an insight in characterization.
* Newspaper/Journal entries: if it makes sense from a stylistic viewpoint to work these in, sometimes ‘faked’ newspaper articles or reports can not only lend verisimilitude to the story, but also perform the function of filling in backstory or history to the reader.
Engage all the senses, not just sight:
Too often, writers describe only what the reader would see, or only give us what the characters are looking at. A story is not a film. As a writer, you are not limited to using only a ‘camera’ when you write your story.
Right now, you’re reading this somewhere, and you’re experiencing that place using all your available senses. There may be music playing, your computer may be humming, the fan may be making a racket, the aquarium might be burbling, or birds might be singing outside your window. Someone might be cooking downstair and you can smell garlic, or there’s the scent of old books and dust, or stale cigarette smoke. What do the the keys of your keyboard feel like under your fingers, or does the label on your shirt itch the back of your neck? Have you just taken a drink of soda or a bite of a sandwich -- what flavors are they evoking on your tongue?
When you’re writing, make sure you work on all the readers’ senses, not just sight. Nothing creates a ‘real’ world or ‘real’ characters in your story more than an evocative hint of jasmine perfume, or the rough scratch of woolen cloth against the character’s skin, or the clatter of wooden wind chimes on the porch...
In the end, your story is a tapestry woven of words. The threads of the tale are your experience, your knowledge, your observations, and your research. As the writer, you blend these together into the warp and woof of character and setting. You wrap that wonderful, thick fabric around the shape of the plot, and you have created a new world in which the reader can dwell for the time it takes them to read your story.
May you weave well!
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