Saturday, September 7, 2013

Where Research Ends and Writing Begins


Gigi Pandian (Guest Blogger)

Like many other writers, I often find myself in danger of becoming stuck in the “research phase” of writing a book. Making sure a book is authentic and believable is a worthy goal, but not if the writer isn’t able to extract herself from gathering facts for long enough to write the book!

I write mysteries about a historian who solves present-day crimes linked to historical treasures, so I legitimately have to do a fair amount of research. However, when I first started writing a book, I took things too far. I got too caught up in the details. I wanted to write an adventure that combined British and Indian history in an unexpected way, but it would have taken years to reach the same expertise on the British East India Company as my protagonist, get a full understanding of Mughal art and jewelry, read all the legends in Scottish folklore…

My research epiphany came when I interviewed a historian. She commented that I was getting too bogged down in the details. When she reads fiction, she said, she doesn’t want to read the same footnoted details that exist in academic papers—she wants to get caught up in the story.

I’ve learned that I need to do enough research to have a solid conceptual understanding of a subject, plus some intriguing gems to sprinkle throughout the book, but I don’t need to have the same expertise as my characters. Doing too much research can actually backfire—easily leading to “info dumps” with too much scholarly information jammed into the pages without furthering the plot or adding depth to the story.

I like my balanced approach much better. It allows me to have fun with research, doing a combination of online, book, and in-person research—and it also lets me get to “the end.”

My first novel, Artifact, takes historian Jaya Jones from San Francisco to the British Library in London to an archaeological dig in the Highlands of Scotland. When I visited London, I made the effort to get a researcher pass and to spend a day in the British Library reading room with the India Office Records. That gave me an understanding of the library’s research materials and let me experience what it was like to do research there, as the characters in Artifact do. But I didn’t spend my whole trip there—though I admit it was tempting! When I got home, I consulted my sketches and got writing.

I knew I wanted to set my second novel in India. I already had an idea for the starting point of the story, but I didn’t yet know where it was going. As usual, I started reading fascinating history books. I spent a lot of time at the San Francisco Library reading about India and San Francisco at the turn of the previous century and about pirates (yes, the book is called Pirate Vishnu, coming from Henery Press in February 2014). In spite of my best intentions, it was only with great effort that I was able to pull myself away from those history books and start writing my own story.

On a trip to visit family in India during the time I was writing the book, I planned a couple of excursions that I thought would help me with book research. A funny thing happened to my grand research plans on that trip: I came up with a plot twist that became integral to the book, but it wasn’t because of one of the special research side-trips I’d planned. It was only because I was allowing my mind to wander, rather than being focused on research, that I was able to come up with the idea. The mind is a funny thing. I’m going to try my best to remember that as I begin researching my next novel…

Leave a comment this weekend to enter the drawing to win a copy of Artifact.

Gigi Pandian is the child of cultural anthropologists from New Mexico and the southern tip of India. After being dragged around the world during her childhood, she left a PhD program in favor of art school and now writes adventurous academic characters in the Jaya Jones Treasure Hunt mystery series. Find Gigi online at www.gigipandian.com (or Facebook, Twitter, or Pinterest).

16 comments:

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Welcome to Poe's Deadly Daughters, Gigi. Dying to know if Jaya too makes a family visit in India. :)

Gigi Pandian said...

Thanks for inviting me to stop by, Liz! Jaya does make it to south India in the upcoming second book in the series, Pirate Vishnu, on the search for a treasure that's related to an ancestor of hers.

Jaya always thought the first member of the Indian side of her family to come to the U.S. had died in the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, until she discovers a treasure map that may have led to the real cause of his death...

Marilyn Patterson said...

Thanks for sharing your balanced approach to research, Gigi. I appreciate the reminder that we don't have to know as much as our characters about their areas of expertise.

JJM said...

You may not know as much as your characters, but ... heaven help you if you don't know as much as your readers! [laughs] Seriously: First, judging by your attitude towards research, I can't see you'd have that problem. And, second, I enjoyed your post very much, Gigi, and your books sound intriguing. I shall definitely look into them, thanks.--Mario R.

Julia Buckley said...

This is a terrific post and contains some really important advice for writers. I finished a book this summer in which the same concept was at issue: my characters are either scientists or savants, and I am neither. :) It made it hard to write from their points of view until I let myself IMAGINE what I thought would happen.

Thanks, Gigi!

Deb Romano said...

Another person who loves to do research! I used to work in a field that required a fair amount of research. I would often get carried away with it,needing to remind myself to leave time to write my reports! Your books will undoubtedly reflect your talent for picking up important details, even if you don't include all your knowledge in each book. I look forward to getting involved in reading your books!

Steven M. Moore said...

Hi Gigi,
Let me be the Devil's Advocate here, perhaps echoing a wee bit of what JJM said. Creating background for your fiction (my definition of research is a bit more restrictive) is another example of the Goldilocks Condundrum. You want to have just enough scientific, technical, or medical background--not too much and not too little. And, as JJM implies, you'd better get it right (or bury your errors so much that no one can find them easily).
Example: my big turn-off with Jules Verne's classic Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea corresponded to the pages and pages of description of underwater flora and fauna. Boring!
For mysteries and thrillers, Deaver almost goes over the top in several of his Lincoln Rhyme books. If a particular piece of forensic evidence is important, it should be there, of course, and you have to throw in some misdirects, but Deaver and shows like CSI sometimes get wrapped up in the technological background in place of getting on with the story.
As a reviewer, I'm a bit more tolerant of extensive background material than most people. Authors should know, however, that all readers are different, and sometimes their patience is sorely tried.
r/Steve

Gigi Pandian said...

Mario and Steven -- Thanks for playing Devil's Advocates! Since it's important to me to make sure I get details right, the way I've resolved that is to make sure I consult with experts. In my most recent manuscript, I was sure I had something right until someone said "while it might be technically correct, it just wouldn't be done." Which was another great lesson for me.

Gigi Pandian said...

Marilyn -- I still have to remind myself that I don't actually have to get a PhD in History to write this series! I do have far too many research books... But hoarding books is another story ;)

Gigi Pandian said...

Julia -- Exactly, we're fiction writers, not memoirists. The most wonderful fictional worlds are full of all sorts of people, and if we waited until we had the expertise of each of our characters, we'd never even finish our first book ;)

Gigi Pandian said...

Deb -- I was once on the academic path, in a PhD program. Even though it wasn't right for me as a whole, I always loved the research parts.

Judy Penz Sheluk said...

As a freelance writer and editor in my day job, I research and fact check constantly and it's very easy to get caught up in the minutia. I love when an author includes tidbits of information that I can learn from, but I don't want to feel like I'm back in school! Great post Gigi and a good solid reminder.

pibroch47 said...

This is probably the most important blog post I've read since joining SinC and the Guppies. The lure of information, new knowledge about anything, has been well nigh irresistible to me throughout my life, and I fear I may have fallen victim to it while writing my WIP. Thank you for helping me see the balance point I must find.

Gigi Pandian said...

Judy, I adore those tidbits in other books, which is why I knew I wanted to write books that involved a certain level of deep research. But yes, I definitely don't want to find myself lecturing ;)

Gigi Pandian said...

To the commenter directly above, I'm so glad you found this post helpful!

Diane Vallere said...

This takes me back to my days researching papers for my art history classes in college. I remember setting aside half of the semester for research: read every article I could find that was relevant to my topic, and the next half of the semester was for organizing my notes and writing the darn thing. By the time I graduated, the process took a lot less than a semester :)