First published 3/9/2016

The success or failure of a manuscript can be found in the details. But which details?

You have done your research. You have stacks and stacks of 3X5 notecards carefully annotated with source material, page numbers, and pertinent quotes. You are ready to write. Whether your book is an epic historical, a hard science space opera, or a deep sea diving thriller, you have talked to experts and read enough books to write a Master’s Thesis. Maybe even a doctoral dissertation. And you love every one of those details. You want to include them all.
Let me give you a couple of examples of how not to use your details, facts and figures.

Recently I started reading a space opera. The first 75 pages were filled with interesting plot points, vivid characters, and an intriguing plot. And then the author spent 3+ pages explaining all the scientific reasons for each of the multiple layers of a pressure suit and the struggle to don each of those layers in zero G. We know the p-suit will be necessary for the heroine to survive the coming action, already foreshadowed. We appreciate that the human body is fragile at best in a space faring environment. But 3 pages of data? space suit

Some people really get off on these kinds of details. They understand the science and would question anything less than a full explanation.

I was bored silly and ended up tossing the book. That is too much detail. About half of that would have satisfied the science geeks and not bored those of us who are more interested in plot and character.

On the other hand there is a bestselling series out there where the heroine is a competitive ballroom dancer. The author has some vocabulary and an eye (or rather the words) for elaborate costumes. But no amount of watching dance competitions on TV can give you the feel of the stretch of muscles, straining for that extra inch of elevation; the glory of blending movement with music, drawing the audience into the story and that awesome moment of executing an exquisite spin or perfect lift. Can you tell I’m a dancer? I grew up in a ballet studio.toe shoes

The author of these books has never taken a dance class in her life, and it shows. But her books top the lists every time. Her audience does not dance, at least not at competitive levels. I can’t read the book for the lack of details. The right details.

A friend of mine claims that when he needs to build a bridge in a book he calls an engineer and talks for half an hour or so. During the conversation he will glean three esoteric words to sprinkle into his description. His audience thinks he’s a genius who knows everything. People who actually build bridges are not his audience.arched bridge

So, how do you figure out which of those stacks and stacks of research cards do you use? Usually about 10%. Let the story tell you which facts are needed rather than force the story to require those facts. The rest of your research feeds your brain, and allows you to give your story texture that draws in the reader and makes your world more real.

Oh, and a beta reader doesn’t hurt either. But remember, it is your book and critique partners can steer you wrong. You don’t have to agree with them, but if more than one finds too much detail (the dreaded info dump) you might want to look at that section again to see if there are ways to break it up.manuscript

If God is in the details, pick and choose the best ones rather than all of them.

Posted in Research Tagged permalink

About Phyllis Irene Radford

Irene Radford has been writing stories ever since she figured out what a pencil was for. A member of an endangered species—a native Oregonian who lives in Oregon—she and her husband make their home in Welches, Oregon where deer, bears, coyotes, hawks, owls, and woodpeckers feed regularly on their back deck. A museum trained historian, Irene has spent many hours prowling pioneer cemeteries deepening her connections to the past. Raised in a military family she grew up all over the US and learned early on that books are friends that don’t get left behind with a move. Her interests and reading range from ancient history, to spiritual meditations, to space stations, and a whole lot in between. Mostly Irene writes fantasy and historical fantasy including the best-selling Dragon Nimbus Series and the masterwork Merlin’s Descendants series. In other lifetimes she writes urban fantasy as P.R. Frost or Phyllis Ames, and space opera as C.F. Bentley. Later this year she ventures into Steampunk as someone else. If you wish information on the latest releases from Ms Radford, under any of her pen names, you can subscribe to her newsletter: Promises of no spam, merely occasional updates and news of personal appearances.


Details — 6 Comments

  1. A writing teacher told me that he didn’t want to see a building-by-building description of the ruined city. He wanted to see the glint of one broken bottle, drifting by in the river as the ghastly moon shone down.

  2. I would also think that trusting one’s own perceptions would be key as well. If, for example, you are writing about building a bridge but aren’t yourself an architectural engineer, what aspects of building a bridge stand out for you during your consultation with one? Those are probably the same ones your non-professional reader will pick up on as well when reading your story.

    And, it couldn’t hurt to ask the professionals, just for balance, which key points they think the non-professional reader will require for a well-rounded description. They probably get a lot of practice in diluting extremely technical details for non-professionals in social settings. In theory, anyway…

  3. Not to be snarky or anything, but in what universe does broken glass float? And why would a single broken bottle signal the apocalypse of a ruined city? And why is the moon “ghastly”?

    Methinks the writing instructor doth try too hard to make the quote his own.

    Apparently I have my copy editor/proofreader hat on today, and I would attack that sentence with my ghastly blue pencil.


  4. Not to disagree with your point, by the way. Just because one has done a lot of research for a story doesn’t mean one has to include it all *in* the story. The research should inform the story, and you’re right that it should be subtle.


  5. The technical details in sf never really satisfy me, because I know what they are, or should be. I am very happy to have the science “wrong” if that gives me some deeper truth about myself of the people around me (but not wrong in a lazy way). My students have been begging me to see Gravity so I can settle some physics point for them, but I just can’t do it.

    Physics is a metaphor for what is really going on, anyway, and like all metaphors is just a big lie with the truth at its center. “I am a mountain”? No I am not … I am about 2 m tall, not 5000, no trees or wolves living on me. I agree as a reader (and a writer of those wonderfully precise, predictive, quantitative physical poems) that the detail can’t be right, so don’t reach for an impossible correctness or completeness.