Whatever your genre and length of fiction, there’s always some sort of research you have to do. Maybe it’s more, maybe it’s less. Sometimes it’s related to hard facts and specific areas of knowledge, like science, history or geography, and other times it’s a character study, the investigation of a certain culture or mentality, or a fun bit of slipping into a character’s shoes to check out what life looks like to them, so you can better write in their voice.
Research is an integral part of writing. It’s the foundation of any good story, and often also a very interesting occupation for the writer. You should always do your homework before you write.
Don’t put that research into your prose.
That’s right. Science-fiction and fantasy writers, if you please queue behind the shooting line in an orderly fashion, you’ll all get your turn. Thank you.
Seriously though, beware of including all that hard earned knowledge into the actual body of your story. Research is not meant to flesh out the story or educate the reader. You’re a storyteller, an entertainer, not a teacher giving a lecture, and you’re not writing a goddamn dissertation. Unless, of course, you are writing a dissertation, in which case stop dicking around on the internet and finish your paper!
Okay, so your first instinct might be that you’ve worked hard to learn all that stuff so the reader can benefit from it. You practically busted your ass to show you’re a professional who knows what the hell he’s doing, or might feel the reader has no clue what you’re talking about unless you stick his nose into it. Or let’s say you’re writing post-apocalyptic science-fiction set two million years from now on an artificial planet in another galaxy, populated by two-headed bionic zombies manipulated by a maniac AI and forced to reenact the life of 16th century French mercenaries. But with nuclear-powered suits. The reader can’t possibly know all the theoretical physics, astronomy, biology and history it took you to create that unique world, and he won’t get it right unless you bring him up to speed first.
Just because you spent a year locked up in the library until your face looks like yellow grass that didn’t get enough sunlight, and you have panda-eyes and ten inch long toe nails you can use to rake the books closer around you, doesn’t mean your readers will be as interested in the mind-expanding knowledge you’ve gained as you are. In fact, if they were interested in it, they’d do the research themselves, not read your story. If they’ve opened your fiction book, you can be pretty it’s for entirely different reasons than thirst for factual information.
Writers should only provide the skeleton of the story, and let the readers fill in everything else. Just like Hemingway says in his iceberg theory, a good story only shows one-eights of its size, the rest lies below.
If you dump everything you know on the reader, explaining yourself and constantly offering background information to make sure the reader understands precisely what you’re trying to say, then reading your story becomes a passive and therefore lame-ass boring activity. Writers who go over the top in their attempt to be accurate, to showcase their vast and complex storyworld, or in the worst case, to prove how smart they are and instruct or teach, unwittingly underestimate the reader’s intelligence and only succeed in becoming unpleasant condescending pricks.
You have to assume your readers are at least as bright and as sharp as you are, and that they know at least as much as you do about the subject, whatever it is. Even French zombies from space. Better yet, don’t think about your reader’s background knowledge at all. Assume you’re writing to yourself, a future you who knows a tic more about everything than you do now, who’s a little wiser and a little quicker.
Write a story, not a dictionary.
Don’t include explanations in your prose. Don’t define everything you mention, and don’t give goddamn instruction manuals for every piece of equipment, or the etimology of every special term you use. That information’s value lies in it granting you the self-confidence and the ease necessary to write that piece smoothly. It infuses your tone with a kind of quiet authority that only comes from knowledge, and lends an aura of truth and depth to what you write.
Keep your erudition to yourself, guard it like a treasure, bury it deep inside your mind-vault and only hint at the magnificent riches that lie inside. This way you will write in a natural tone, and avoid slipping out of the delicious narrative voice that identifies you and that brings readers to you in the first place, and slipping into that annoying explicative drone of a walking thesaurus. Don’t be that guy, he’s on the list of extinct species. Scribus Thesauropodus. Right there, see?
Powerful stories convey far more through subtext and inferences, through secrets and implications and the stimulation of the reader’s intelligent participation, than they can ever do through elaborate explanations. And yes, even info dumps smartly camouflaged as dialogue, flash backs or dreams fall in that category if they take up a bigger portion of your story than the actual goddamn plot.
Don’t mistake “write what you know” for “write everything you know”, for crying out loud! Just like you shouldn’t mistake it to mean “write only what you know”. But that’s the fuse of another post.
Go forth and study the shit out of your subject of interest, spread it all across your floor and writhe and wriggle in it like a happy little piglet, and then instead of throwing mud at the reader, clean that mess up and write your story.