Research: When Good Books Go Bad

Many good books go bad when the authors refuse to let go of any of their hard-won research and so dump it all in the novel, making the story drag. I have a tendency to put in a lot of information — though I don’t use all my research, not even most of it. In A Spark of Heavenly Fire, I talk (or rather my characters do) about biological weapons, biowarfare, bioengineered organisms because I thought the reality was more frightening than my fiction. For example, The World Health Organization spent years and a heap of money to eradicate smallpox, yet smallpox in ever more virulent forms is stockpiled in labs all around the world. Spooks the heck out of me!

But I digress. Daughter Am I, which will be released in October, was conceived as a way to combine two of my interests at that time — early gangster history and the mythic journey. (You might not recognize the similarity between Daughter Am I and Star Wars or The Wizard of Oz, but all three are based on the same mythic journey template.) In 2007, I entered the book into the first ABNA (Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award) contest, and my prize for being a semi-finalist was a review from Publishers Weekly. After giving a summary of the plot, the reviewer ended with:

While the author certainly researched the history of the Mafia, too many of the numerous historical asides — and subplots — are tacked on under the guise of story time, making the story drag with detail abut Wyatt Earp, the JFK assassination and bootleggers. But underneath the relentless bouts of story time is a delightful treasure-hunting tale of finding one’s self in a most unlikely way.

Too many historical asides? Eek! That was the whole point of the book! I tightened up the story, got rid of the asides that didn’t go directly to character or plot, but still felt a bit uncomfortable with the situation. When I mentioned my concern about the “info dumps” to fellow author Malcolm Campbell, he responded:

Your book is wonderful. Looking into one’s past is powerful stuff, but getting tangled up with a lot of lovable scam artists is a really fresh approach. Your wonderful characterizations—that’s another thing for discussion. It’s a challenge having lots of characters while keeping them from all sounding like oneself.

The “info dumps” as you call them add a lot of depth to the book and are informative and entertaining in their own right. They support the character telling the story. But also, they provided periods of “calm” in what is a frenetic quest that zooms from one unexpected thing to another without pause. We’ve seen “these gangsters” in dozens of movies, and for me, the archetypes are those of the 1940s films my generation grew up on—and that’s appropriate since these guys are elders. They’re a much different breed of cat than we see on modern, street-wise TV shows like, say, DARK BLUE which takes us undercover right into the worst of today’s gangs and thugs.


(The first chapters of my books are included in the mystery sampler available as a free download from Second Wind Publishing. Click here: Free Downloads.)

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8 Responses to “Research: When Good Books Go Bad”

  1. knightofswords Says:

    I was going to ask how you glommed onto that PW review comment I saw on the Second Wind site, so now I know.

    We’ve all let research get out of hand. I recently read two novels where this happened, one with scenes in South America and the other with scenes in Switzerland. What annoyed me was that in both cases, the author went past ambiance and local color and historic site name dropping. I was caught in long sections of travelogue. This diluted the otherwise tense plots.

    “Daughter I Am” has a nice mix of a speeding wild plot and background history.


  2. Pat Bertram Says:

    Malcolm, I appreciate the compliments, especially since this is the book I’m most hesitant about. As for the PW review — I cheated and only used the last sentence.

  3. Susan Helene Gottfried Says:

    Interesting how two different takes on the book are so varied. Both comments could easily be considered legitimate, so now there’s only one thing to do: read the book myself and decide.

    Nice way to hook a girl, Pat!

  4. joylene Says:

    This is why I love editing. I generally have all the info dumps straightened around by the 20th draft. In the beginning, I’m often accused of not inserting enough info. Right around the 6th draft, I can get carried away and have been bouts of literal diarrhea. It’s like verbal diarrhea, which I’ve also been accused of. Lol

  5. Suzanne Says:

    Guilty! I don’t know how many times I cut out some of the info/descriptions of the White House and all the pom & circumstance surrounding a State Visit. I worked so hard for all that research, but just went overboard in applying it. A good lesson learned the hard way.

  6. Sheila Deeth Says:

    A chance to read some first chapters – just like a bookstore. Thank you Pat and Second Wind.

    Interesting to see the different review comments, and how you used them. Certainly makes the book sound intriguing.

  7. Dave Ebright Says:

    Hi Pat – I write for kids (even worse – boys) & it requires constant vigilance in this department. Info dump = end of story for impatient readers. I struggled with this when describing sailing (my books always involve boats & the sea) particularly explanations about equipment & terms. I cut the description way down after deciding that if anyone wanted to learn more, they could study it elsewhere. When it comes to history (an common ingredient in my tales), I feed little bits at a time, trying to keep it brief but making it relevant to a scene / plotline. I do like prologues, though lots of authors consider them a type of info dump.

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