Friday, July 8, 2016

Research - Enough vs Too Much? Guest post by Terrence McCauley

Terrence McCauley is an award-winning writer of crime fiction. His first techno-thriller, SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL, was published by Polis Books in July 2015. Polis also reissued Terrence's first two novels set in 1930 New York City – PROHIBITION and SLOW BURN. In 2016, Down and Out Books also published Terrence's World War I novella - THE DEVIL DOGS OF BELLEAU WOOD. Proceeds from sales go directly to benefit the Semper Fi Fund. Terrence has had short stories featured in Thuglit, Spintetingler Magazine, Shotgun Honey, Big Pulp and other publications. He is a member of Mystery Writers of America, the International Thriller Writers, and the International Crime Writers Association. A proud native of The Bronx, NY, he is currently writing his next work of fiction.

Terrence McCauley:
Research – Enough vs. Too Much?

Whether you’re writing a period piece or a techno-thriller set in modern day, research plays an important role in the believability of your work. However, one must strike a balance between just enough research and too much. Easier said than done.

If you don’t do enough research – particularly in a period piece – your work will come off as flat and unbelievable. Readers love to pick nits and they’re entitled to so. After all, they’ve paid good money for your work and deserve to have a decent product. They’ll gladly call out a writer who has made even the slightest mistake. Describing a ’69 Mustang in a story set in ’65. A phrase used in an era before it was invented. A battle that took place in the summer of 1918, not in the fall. A misused police term in a procedural. You get the idea.

A writer can also run the risk of being too meticulous in their research as well. They can get paralyzed by details to the point where their work comes off as expository, more white paper than novel. This can be a time-consuming process that takes the writer away from physically working on their story. It can also weigh down the story with too many juicy tidbits dug up in research that risks boring the reader and allowing them to drift. Tom Clancy and Dan Brown come to mind as examples of this kind of problem. Both writers are/were very successful, but both tend to dump a tremendous amount of information on the reader’s heads in the course of a novel. Acronyms and factoids and protocols and history. It might be incredibly interesting to the author, but will the reader care? Even if such details do play an important role in the overall plot, are you risking losing reader interest by introducing too many facts? Will they even get the plot twist if it’s buried too deeply within the details?

I’ve had the good fortune to have published novels and short stories in several genres. PROHIBITION and SLOW BURN were both set in 1930s New York City. SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL and A MURDER OF CROWS are techno-thrillers set in modern day New York and London. Although all four novels are told in the same thematic universe and are all related, the 1930s were a much different era than the digital age of today. How did I do it?

By doing enough research to be dangerous, not deadly. While I was working on a novel years ago, I was struggling with the problem of putting in too much information as opposed to not enough. My mentor, Wesley Gibson, gave me the best writing advice I’ve ever received: you’re writing a novel, not a text book. Show me enough detail to frame the story, then concentrate on the story itself.

That advice has served me well in the years since. In PROHIBITION, I wrote about gangsters and political bosses that were inspired by real people and events I had uncovered in my research, but not to the point where you felt like you were reading about a James Cagney character. I made sure I stayed away from referencing well-known mobsters like Al Capone and Lucky Lucciano. You mention one of them in a story and you’re playing with fire. So many people know so much about their lives that one mistake will lose a discerning reader. In SLOW BURN, I wrote about a murder-kidnapping case set in 1930s New York. I asked a couple of police officers I know to read it and see if I made any mistakes. They liked it because I didn’t dwell on enough facts to make them say a particular event or method was impossible. I didn’t have to attend an autopsy to convey the sense of a crime scene. I kept it general and let the characters tell the story.

In SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL and A MURDER OF CROWS, I had the benefit of being able to read about technology revealed by recent whistleblowers like Edward Snowden and others. I learned about technology and capabilities that I didn’t know existed before, but I didn’t use them to tell my story for me. These facts were important ways to move the plot along and make it interesting, but not to the point where I leaned on them too much. I knew readers cared about details, but they care about characters more.

Balance is important, both in life and in doing research for a writing project. The reader expects the writer to know what they’re talking about. But the reader shouldn’t be bored in the process. Large chunks of expository paragraphs tend to turn a reader off, but hints of facts sprinkled in through the story will create a nice pace that will keep the writer at the keyboard and the reader turning the page.


For years, every intelligence agency in the world has been chasing the elusive terrorist known only as The Moroccan. But when James Hicks and his clandestine group known as the University thwart a bio-terror attack against New York City and capture The Moroccan, they find themselves in the crosshairs of their own intelligence community.

The CIA, NSA, DIA and the Mossad are still hunting for for The Moroccan and will stop at nothing to get him. Hicks must find a way to keep the other agencies at bay while he tries to break The terrorist and uncover what else he is planning.

When he ultimately surrenders information that leads to the most wanted terrorist in the world, Hicks and his team find themselves in a strange new world where allies become enemies, enemies become allies and the fate of the University - perhaps even the Western world - may hang in the balance.

Can Hicks and the University survive an onslaught from A MURDER OF CROWS?


Dana King said...

Good points, all.

I have come to adopt a philosophy of, "The best place for research is between the lines." The reader should be subconsciously aware it was done, but never told.

Patti Phillips said...

Fascinating post. I have to do a great deal of research for the Kerrian's Notebook short stories, but not as much for the novel. Terrence McCauley is a 'new to me' author, but this post has intrigued me. I'd like to see how he handles the research in "A Murder of Crows."

Katie Caprero said...

Great comments. It was interesting to learn how you did all your research. I loved "Sympathy for the Devil" and have "Murder of Crows on order. Thanks for putting so much effort into your novels. We readers certainly appreciate the quality of your work.