Chainsaws, smoke alarms, & “over-researching”

Alicia BessetteI tell aspiring novelists, “If you need inspiration, interview somebody who’s willing and, ideally, a little offbeat.”

Along those lines, writing for a newspaper is a great source of inspiration, and research is built in as part of your job. A few years ago I wrote a small feature on a performance artist named Michael Higgins, who fit the above criteria: he was willing, and he is charmingly, fascinatingly offbeat.

Higgins is a chainsaw sculptor who carves mascots before school audiences. I had never seen anyone transform — with chainsaws, before a crowd of hundreds — an enormous hunk of wood into the likeness of an eagle. In about thirty minutes. Sitting in the audience, I was awe-struck. It’s no coincidence that a favorite character in my debut novel (which, in case you missed it, is now titled SIMPLY FROM SCRATCH) is a seventy-something renaissance woman who manages a thriving chainsaw art business.

Other research experiences for SIMPLY FROM SCRATCH had nothing to do with my newspaper work. For example, when my Dutton editor encouraged me to include an original recipe as an epilogue, I spent a lot of time in my kitchen, experimental-baking. One morning I set the smoke alarm off, a “life imitating art” moment that made me feel irrevocably connected to my narrator Zell (short for Rose-Ellen) who, in the very first pages, almost burns down her kitchen.

Extra tidbit: At a book event last fall, a very well-known New York Times bestselling suspense writer cautioned against “over-researching.” In fiction, he said, too much description of a process or topic can be tedious for readers, and it allows unimportant details to bog down the essential elements of story, such as character and plot.

What do you think about any of the above? I’d love to know!

~Alicia Bessette

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15 thoughts on “Chainsaws, smoke alarms, & “over-researching”

  1. SWEDISH CHRISTMAS COOKIES

    Ingredients

    * 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
    * 2 teaspoons ground cardamom
    * 1/4 teaspoon fine salt
    * 1 cup unsalted butter, (2 sticks), at room temperature
    * 1 cup confectioners’ sugar
    * 1 large egg, room temperature
    * 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
    * 1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
    * Colored sanding sugars or chopped toasted pecans
    * Fire Extinguisher

    Directions

    Whisk the flour, cardamom, and salt in a bowl.

    Put the butter and confectioners’ sugar in a food processor, and process until smooth. Pulse in the egg, vanilla, and lemon zest until combined. Add the flour mixture and process to make a soft buttery dough. Divide dough in half onto 2 (12-inch long) sheets of plastic wrap, using the plastic, shape into rough logs. Refrigerate the dough logs for 30 minutes until just firm enough to shape into uniform logs, 8-inches long by 2-inches in diameter. Refrigerate until firm, at least 2 hours or overnight.

    Preheat oven to 325 degrees F.

    Scatter either the sanding sugars or toasted nuts on a work surface and roll the logs until completely coated. Cut into 1/4-inch thick cookies and space about 1 inch apart on parchment-lined baking sheets. Bake until golden around the edges, about 20 to 25 minutes.

  2. That’s great advice about not “over-researching.” Something I will take to heart – oh maybe today!

  3. over-researching is probably a bigger issue now than ever since the internet can act as a kind of half-assed research experience. You could have skipped the live performance and YouTube’d grainy vids of chainsaw sculptors!!

    For me (as a writer), research needs to be unintentional (ie, if knowledge inspires a story later that’s awesome). if the story drives me down the rabbit hole of research, then it’s going to be time poorly spent because I love reading about different things and will get distracted easy. fun facts abound! in fact, I’m full of facts about blueberries and cults and 2012 right now.

  4. Interesting point about over-researching. Is it over-researching that’s really the problem, or is it an inability to see how much of the research should make it into the book and how much should be left out?

    I used to be a reporter, too, and loved quirky characters. I still remember one artist I interviewed who’d tried to patent something like 1,000 of his ideas. He was totally nuts – and inspiring!

  5. Good distinction, Sarah. The writer Alicia referenced above sort of flaunted the fact (in a humorous way) that he does very little research, if I remember correctly. And he has been wildly successful. I think fiction is about conveying a universal truth that defies facts. A truth that can be plugged into any set of details and still be true in some way. And mostly, fiction is about human relationships regardless of the details. A love story between a doctor and a lawyer will have many of the same elements of a love story between a submarine captain and a mermaid. Most readers only care about the relationship and the immediate obstacles…the few relevant details and not ALL the details. If you care about ALL details, you probably prefer non-fiction. And you’re either way into facts about the history of whaling or you are lying if you say you loved reading every page of MOBY DICK. That is probably the ultimate example of over-researching and a story being bogged down by irrelevant details. Now it is time to make Swedish Christmas Cookies!

  6. Of course, I write plays (musicals) not novels but over-researching is something that I’m “Not guilty.” I’ve set two plays in New Orleans. Never been there. I throw in a couple of actual locations in the area, and make up the rest. I set my opera, Stillwaters, on Stillwaters Ranch outside Sweetwater Texas. I think there’s a Sweetwater Texas . . . there’s a Sweetwater Tennessee. I didn’t know there was a Stillwaters Texas until a lady came up to me after she saw the reading of Scene 1 to say, “You’ve captured Stillwaters perfectly. I know. I lived there.” And, to think, I thought I was making it up!

  7. I love using research as an excuse to be nosy.

    While I excel at wasting time on the internet, I’m pretty good at focusing my research and not going down a rabbit hole. My research usually has to do with specifics about physical places and University rules/schedules/etc.

    I got a private tour of Corpus Christi College (Cambridge) yesterday, and it sure was pretty 🙂

  8. I love using research as an excuse to be nosy. -Emily

    My wife often raises her eyebrows at me as I listen in on the conversations of others (restaurants are great for this). In my defense I tell her, “I’m just doing a little research.”

  9. Over-researching and then over sharing is a problem I find again and again in books. Obviously the writer finds the subject interesting and I know there’s a fine line between giving enough and giving too much. It’s probably something a editor would have an easier time pinpointing than an author, who may be too close to see the problem.

  10. I don’t think it’s possible to over-research, but as Sarah pointed out, overSHARING is definitely a potential problem!

    I hope in my work to do enough research that at least I hit the basic points right, so that someone with expertise in a given area won’t be yanked out of the story by thinking, “What? That’s ridiculous!”

    I laughed seeing my doctor-friend posting on Facebook about a scene in the medical drama Three Rivers containing a mistake that laypeople would never catch, but was hugely obvious to doctors! That’s what I try hard to avoid.

    (And I was hugely relieved when a doctor told me that I got my medical detail in my first novel “right on.” WHEW.)

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