The perils of information dumping.

Writers are known for doing a lot of research, aren’t they? Or perhaps it depends on the kind of thing they write. It’s probably possible to write a book and not need to do much research at all.

Some writers seem to do tons of research, and they make sure that you, the reader, get to read all of it. ALL. OF. IT. They present it to you like a magician pulling a bunny out of a hat. This is called an information dump. Throwing all your research in this way can be tedious, and will slow down the pace of the story drastically. I mean, yes, it’s nice to offer these insights or explanations to your reader, but I don’t think it’s a good plan to completely exhaust your reader, overwhelming them with information so they feel like they’re cramming for an exam.

Do I really need to know the source of the leather used to make the hero’s shoes, or the style of the traditional hand-stitching that finished them off? I mean, unless that pushes the plot forward, I seriously doubt it’s something I need to know to enable me to enjoy the book. I skip all this type of stuff in books—there’s not enough time in my day or patience in my soul to read about the handstitchedness of a chap’s shoes. I doubt I even need to be told the hero is wearing shoes—I think it’s pretty much taken as read that he or she is wearing shoes, don’t you? Unless you’re the author or Kinky Boots or some other shoe-related plot, I don’t think it’s useful or helpful.

I don’t do a lot of research for my novels. Well, that’s not strictly true. If it’s something that interests me, I can waste hours on it, but if I’m purely trying to find out about something ‘ordinary’ then I can take it or leave it. I nip in, check the fact, and nip out again. Then I try to drip-feed it into the story if relevant–a little here, a little there.

As a writer mainly of murder mysteries, I know more than I really need to about methods of killing, about the human body after death, about the psychology of a killer—those are the things that intrigue me. My search history on my computer is enough to make a grown man blanch. But I try not to crowbar it all into my story except where it’s relevant.

As my main character in the Dottie books is ‘involved’ in the fashion industry, and because of personal interest, I spend quite a lot of time researching styles, technology relating to fabric production, and the mechanics of getting a frock to a customer from drawing board to shop assistant. And I’ll admit, quite a bit of this does get put into the book: readers have told me they enjoy the clothing details.

A lot of my research is conducted online, of course, as so much of everything is done these days. But any time I go out, I look for architectural features or cultural ideas that could come in useful in a book. I take photos of everything when I go out. (Or used to, back in the day when going out was a thing we all could do).

I’ve got tons of books too, on fashion history, cultural history, domestic and social history, and even on forensics.

For my research into designer brands—I’m not a designer brand kind of girl—for my Friendship Can Be Murder trilogy, I basically scanned Harrods website and selected the most expensive (insert item of choice here) I could find on their pages and awarded it to my protagonist. But those books have been around for the best part of ten years now, so may well be a bit out of date.

So if you plan to write a book and need to do some research, or if like me you are simply really nosy, here are my top favourites for online research:

Google maps – you can look around any town, not just in the UK but many other countries. Fancy a stroll around the streets of southern France? No problem. Want to drive through Warsaw? Easy peasy. Get a feel for the places you write about and see the real life layout (even if from two years ago) of your location. You can also get an approximate journey time and route all laid out for you. I love the internet!

Timeanddate.com – create yourself a printable or downloadable calendar from 1926. Or any other year from history. Want to know when there was a full moon in the Victorian era? No problem. Was Easter Sunday in 1958 in March or April? When was sunset or sunrise on a particular day? It’s all here. Super useful.

Wikipedia – yes everything seems to be on Wiki – but use with caution and try to verify the information here on other sites too, to ensure accuracy.

Want old street maps of London? Try maps-of-london.com

You can also get loads of useful information from police websites, every police service has them.

Newspapers online – so much useful material there.

The Victoria and Albert museum has a wonderful website. And no doubt other museums have, too. We’re all online nowadays, aren’t we?

Britainexplorer.com has information on interesting places. I used it to find out about a particular country house with priestholes or secret passages.

https://britainexplorer.com/listing/harvington-hall-priest-holes-and-hides/

Another time, I needed to know about everyday life in Britain in the 1930s, and researched telephones. Now we take a phone for granted, but in the 30s they were still pretty new and very much the preserve of the well-to-do. This blog post from italktelecom.com was very helpful

https://www.italktelecom.co.uk/blog/a-brief-history-of-the-home-telephone

And when Dottie got her first car in The Thief of St Martins, I needed to know all about motoring in Britain in 1935. Check out this:

https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/what-is-designation/heritage-highlights/englands-first-filling-station/

But if you take away anything from this, I hope it is, it’s easy to find out information you need, but use it carefully, don’t overwhelm your reader with information that is perhaps interesting to you but not actually needed.

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5 thoughts on “The perils of information dumping.

  1. Someone once told me that William McIlvanney, author of the Laidlaw detective series, first realisd that Ian (“Rebus”) Rankin would be a successful professional writer when Rankin confessed that he wrote the story first THEN did the necessary research.

    Everything you write here is spot-on, Caron. Work out what your typical reader wants to know a little more about, and leave it at that. Everything else is as boring as the No.11 bus timetable.

    Like

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