Dear Story Nurse,
I’m in the planning phases of a time travel short story, and I find myself wondering how much research is too much. What’s a good way to find the line between authenticity and overdoing it?
There are two people for whom research might be “too much”: you, and your reader. For you, it’s too much if it prevents you from writing, or if your investment in research outweighs its return. For your reader, it’s too much if it it prevents them from enjoying the story.
Some general rules for any story set anywhere:
- If your story is intended to transport your readers to a particular time and place and focus on the experience of life there, then you will need more detail and accuracy. If it’s intended to be a plotty adventure, you can skimp on the scenery.
- More description often means a slower pace. (This isn’t necessarily a bad thing!)
- Focus on the elements of the setting that the protagonist cares about. Make your descriptions relevant to the plot and character development.
- Research is like an iceberg: 90% of it goes unseen, but its weight gives significant solidity and momentum to the 10% that shows up on the page. For example, research will help you make a long list of words people didn’t say, clothes they didn’t wear, and attitudes they didn’t have; your omission of those things matters as much to the realism of the story as your inclusion of historically accurate elements.
- Prioritize the 21st-century reader’s enjoyment of the story over meticulous accuracy, even if that means tweaking dates of historical events, creating characters who approve of things like sexual consent and interracial relationships, and not mentioning that everyone’s teeth were rotten or fake.
- Research should serve the writing of the story, not distract you from it or overwhelm you.
The specifics of this will differ from person to person and project to project. I spent a full year doing research for one of my books in progress, and I don’t regret it at all; it was interesting and fun in its own right, it helped me figure out several important subplots to the story, and it gave me confidence in my writing. But another year would be too much, and would really be a way of procrastinating. A year’s investment in research felt proportional for a novel, but I wouldn’t put that much time or effort into researching for a short story unless I was planning to write a series of them. It’s up to you to determine what feels excessive, and to be honest with yourself when you’re researching out of avoidance rather than because there’s information you really need.
Also keep in mind that you can write before you research. Some background knowledge is useful to keep you from predicating your story on an impossibility (unless you do that on purpose), but once you’ve got the basics, try outlining or even writing a first draft, and using that to direct your research into details. For example, I’m writing a historical story right now and casually threw in a bit about one of the characters liking theater. This developed into a throughline for the story, and now I need to research the theater of the era, but I don’t have to do that up front. I can write scenes where the characters go to see [PLAY] and comment on the talent of [FAMOUS ACTRESS], and when I’ve finished drafting, I’ll do the research I need to fill in those blanks. The same goes for things like “she walked across the [floorboards? carpet?]” or “he admired her dress, which was [description goes here]”. There’s value in serendipity, and fun in wandering around a time and place, but don’t get too caught up in doing research that you might never use. I don’t have to read all of Shakespeare’s works to have one of my characters quote him; I just need to do a quick search for “shakespeare quote [topic]”, pick something that sounds right, and move on.
Writing first and researching second is a good idea if you’re easily daunted by the thought of getting everything just right. The more you research, the more you’ll realize how little you know, and then you may feel discouraged rather than inspired. Writing first narrows the list of things you need to learn and helps you keep from burning out.
As you’re doing your research, be sure to organize it in ways that will be useful to you as you write and revise. Nothing’s worse than knowing you found exactly the right historical figure, fact, object, quote, or event but not being able to put your hands on it when you need it.
From the reader’s perspective, it helps to know your target audience and what they’re looking for from a story like yours. There are certainly people who know vast amounts about history and will nitpick every detail of a gown or a dance or a meal, but most readers of time travel stories won’t notice these infelicities unless something is really egregiously and obviously out of place, like a 12th-century Scotsman saying “Okie-dokie!” or living in a duplex apartment.
When you incorporate your research into your story, do it with a light touch. Keep your protagonist’s or narrator’s perspective at the front of your mind; don’t harp on the things that they will find unremarkable or irrelevant. If this is your 22nd-century time traveler’s fifth visit to the court of Louis XIV, they probably won’t go on and on about everyone speaking French. Even if your protagonist is a wide-eyed tourist, stay focused on their plot obligations and personal goals. Be especially wary of scenes where people tell one another things they already know, or describe ordinary objects or actions in extremely meticulous terms. Here’s an only slightly exaggerated example of what you don’t want:
“I had the best time in 2017 New York,” Johanna gushed to Johann. “I remembered you telling me how much you liked riding the public transportation system, so I tried it and it was just the most fun! You have to swipe a tiny plastic card through a little slot in just the right way, and then you walk through various tunnels and up and down stairs to get to the train you want. Each train has eight cars, except for some that have two or ten or eleven, and there is a person who rides in a funny little box in the middle of the train and sticks their head out of the window at every stop. There are two different widths of train car, isn’t that interesting? But of course you know all this, you were the one telling me that the Q train is so much nicer than the 3 train.”
The 1317 Rome version of this is exactly as boring as the 2017 New York version. If your characters sound like they’re reciting Wikipedia articles, something has gone awry.
There will be times when you want to convey something to the reader that the protagonist already knows and finds uninteresting, such as that people in Tudor England wore linen undergarments and changed them daily. “She took off her linen smock, as she did every day, because frequently changing her underclothes helped keep her smelling nice” is an uninteresting recitation of factoids. Instead, find an emotional hook, some reason for her to care about her smock. Is it torn? Did she see a nice one in the market that she couldn’t afford? Does she hate washing it because the soap makes her hands red? Did a friend complain to her about another woman whose body odor suggests she’s not changing or washing her underclothes often enough? Can you show her personality through whether she carefully folds the smock or leaves it carelessly draped over a chair? Or you may realize that any of those things would be a distraction from the story, and omit the information: “She changed into her night clothes and lay down, hoping sleep would come quickly.”
If possible, run your story past multiple beta readers who will tell you whether you’re making it too much of a travelogue (or, on the flip side, whether your depiction of 1317 Rome is indistinguishable from 2017 New York). Expect to do a few rounds of revision while you get the balance right. And then let it go, and move on to the next story, which will encourage you to learn entirely new and different things—one of the great side benefits of writing.