I recently read a book that contained such egregious examples of what not to do with research that I had to laugh. Anyone who has taken even the most basic writing course knows that author intrusion into the story is something to be avoided. When that intrusion takes place as a mini-lecture on facts the author learned while writing the story, it is particularly disastrous.
In this case, the story was a murder set in the South Pacific. Immediately after the discovery of the body, the writer stuck in two pages of text explaining the geology, topography and meteorology or the area – without a single reference to the plot. Needless to say, I was thrown out of the story in an instant. I closed the book and haven’t opened it since.
More importantly, from the author’s point of view, I’ve marked her as a rank novice who should have hired an editor. She is now on my “do not buy” list. That’s the downside of self-publishing. Fresh new authors, eager to release their creations into the world don’t have to pass any gatekeepers to see their work in print. But authors need editors. Just ask any successful writer today about their first novels and you’ll find nearly all are grateful that an editor or agent somewhere had the good sense to reject their first efforts.
Writing fiction is a learned skill. It takes practice. It takes hard work. It takes teachers and coaches (not your mom or your sister) to read your work with a critical eye, before it ever leaves your desk. Just because Amazon has a “publish” button, doesn’t mean you should click it before your work is ready. Jack Bickham wrote a great book for aspiring authors, The 38 most common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and How to Avoid Them.) He has a chapter titled “Don’t Lecture Your Reader.” He suggests that a writer who lectures is including information because she wants it in the story, not because the viewpoint character is thinking about it. If the characters in your story don’t care about the geology of an island, neither does the reader.
Because I write historical fiction, I’m often tempted to dump in a paragraph or two of research that is relevant to the time period but irrelevant to the story I’m telling. Recently, I’ve come across a character named Wellington D. Moses. I’m going to tell you about him here, so I won’t be tempted to put my research into an unrelated story.
Wellington D. Moses was a Black barber in Barkerville in the 1860’s. One day, Moses was cutting the hair of a gambler, James Barry, from Texas, when he noticed the gambler had a gold nugget stick pin that looked familiar. Sleepless in his cot on that hot evening, held awake by the raucous dance hall next door, Moses finally remembered where he’d seen the pin. It had been owned by one Charles Blessing. In the spring of 1866, after spending the winter in Victoria, Moses had met up with Blessing on his way back to Barkerville. The two men decided to travel together. A few days later, James Barry joined them and they three men enjoyed an evening together. The next morning, Moses stayed behind on personal business while Barry and Moses set out ahead.
When Moses arrived in Barkerville, he looked for his friend Blessing, but no one had seen him. Weeks later, when Barry came into Moses’ shop, the barber inquired of him what had happened to Charles Blessing, but Barry claimed ignorance. After investigating on his own, Moses took his story to the police. On the same day a body was discovered. It was Charles Blessing.
Barry was hunted by the police and eventually brought to trial. The final piece of evidence against the gambler was the identification of the nugget pin by Wellington D. Moses. When Barry claimed there were many such pins in the country, the barber was able to point to the unique quality of this one. Looked at from a certain angle, the nugget showed the profile of a man’s face. When judge and jury inspected the pin, they saw the telltale face. Barry was found guilty and hanged.
Later Wellington Moses spearheaded a subscription to give his friend, Charles Blessing a decent burial. Over a hundred dollars was raised. Enough to place a headboard at the grave and a fence around it. If you travel to Barkerville, you can still see it.