Research: How Much is Too Much?

Vicki Doudera here, happy to have watched an episode of WCSH TV’s 207 a few nights ago that featured author Dennis Lehane. 

I like Lehane’s writing, and I enjoyed meeting him back at New England Crime Bake a few years ago. He’s not afraid to switch genres and in person doesn’t pull any punches, but the main reason this particular interview resonated with me is because of a comment he made regarding research for his new novel, Live By Night.

Live by Night is set during the Roaring 20’s, the time of flappers, Prohibition, and the

Charleston dance craze. 207 Interviewer Rob Caldwell asked Lehane whether he listened to music of the era as he wrote, and Lehane said no. (He listens to Radiohead.) He then asked him how much digging up of historical facts the new book required  Lehane answered, “ I research as needed.”

I love that comment, because I, too, “research as needed.”  I’ll be buzzing along, and come upon some fact or detail I need to know, and I’ll allow myself to dig for an answer to that question and only that question.  In other words, I don’t let myself fall headlong into what many writers call “research rapture.”

If you’re a diver, you know about nitrogen narcosis, the dreaded “rapture of the deep.” Research rapture won’t kill you physically, but it can sap a writer’s energy, time, and most important, momentum.

It’s not that I haven’t been a victim of this syndrome before. Once upon a time, I wrote historical articles for The Old Farmer’s Almanac, Yankee, and the like, and I could immerse myself in the past like nobody’s business. It was a pleasant place to be – no deadlines, no tricky sentences to write, and no pesky editors looking for rewrites.

But my life is different now. I’m juggling a profession and a career, plus an active volunteer and social life. With a book due each March, I can’t afford to succumb to the siren song of endless inquiry. I’m glad to see that I’m in good company as I research as needed.

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6 Responses to Research: How Much is Too Much?

  1. Joan Emerson says:

    “Research as needed” . . . sounds like a perfect plan to me.

  2. John Clark says:

    I agree completely. I love the having the ability to pop open a browser window and clarify a sticky point in a heartbeat so I can continue writing. I did that yesterday morning when I had a brain cramp about body structure of wasps.

  3. Lea Wait says:

    I do both. Especially when I’m writing a book set in the past — even the recent past (I’m currently writing a book set in 1970) — I first immerse myself in the period, so I can see, feel, taste, touch and hear it. I know what my character knows — not more – not less –about the world. I know, for example, what she or her is (in 1970) watching on TV, whether her car is air conditioned, what kind of gum she chews, what that song is that keeps playing on her transistor radio. And so forth. Not all that will be in the book. But knowing it helps me to know him (or her.) But — as needed, while I’m writing, I also check specific points. Were Peter Max posters still around? What time of day was Cousin Brucie the disc jockey of choice in the NYC area? Because I believe it’s those little details that add up to the richness that pull readers in. That bring a a plot and characters to life.

    • Ah, Cousin Brucie. Now that brings back memories, but in my case of the early 1960s.

    • Lea, I suspected you might have a different point of view. It’s interesting to hear that you both immerse AND research as needed. Whatever you are doing is certainly working, and I suppose like many parts of the writing process, the way one researches is a highly individual thing.

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