Research Overload (or don’t let facts spoil a good story)

I am a storyteller. Does that have to mean research overload?

StorytellingStorytelling is an art as old as time. I make up stories, tell yarns.

I am not an academic, I didn’t go to university and I didn’t study the art of writing at any college.  I remember telling stories in primary school (possibly it began even earlier, I can’t remember) and I learned my art as I went along.  Still do, in fact.

So I am NOT telling you how to write (or how to read). I am talking about stuff that distracts me when I’m reading a novel. Things I try to avoid.

“Write what you know”

We have all heard that old maxim, but whatever genre you write in, you will come across something that needs you to do a little research. At least, that is my experience.

Shadow of Sherlock Holmes focuses his magnifying glass on thumb print

If you are writing a contemporary story, perhaps it’s just calculating the distance between towns. That’s not research overload, surely?

library shelves for researchAdd in a sick dog and suddenly you may need to look up veterinary procedures. (I once needed to know a speedy cure for a poisoned pup.)

Or maybe one of your characters is a librarian – how much do you know about the Dewey Decimal System?

Research overload… You see what I mean?

reader absorbed in research overload?


The thing is, your story needs to transport the reader into the world you have created. Research (but possibly not research overload) helps to give it credibility.

Most readers allow a little artistic licence, but they need to believe in your world.


Historicals take research overload to a whole other level

World-building Georgette Heyer's Regency WorldI am not saying writing contemporary is easier. No way. It’s just that with historicals, new readers may not know anything about your chosen period. And, come to that, you may not know much at the start!

Georgette Heyer wrote wonderful historicals. Her research was meticulous, even if some of the slang was her own creation.

That has never worried me. I love her books, I love the world she created. And when she died, I realised there would be no more Heyers to read, so I would have to write some Georgian and Regency stories of my own. And that meant research.

Just because I write romantic novels doesn’t mean I don’t care about research; or even research overload

Rabbit hole warningI do care. I try really hard and and there is always a lot more information than I need.

But that doesn’t mean I don’t disappear down the rabbit hole of something really interesting along the way. The thing is, what is interesting to me might be a serious bore to my reader.

A matter of personal taste

I think we can agree to differ here: some of us love all the historical detail all of the time. The more the merrier. Others prefer to get on with the story.

Svengali, silent movieI was recently reading a book by a very successful and multi-award-winning author, set in England in 1939.  The author had clearly done their research. Lots of detail about England during the early months of WWII.

For my taste, however, there was too much. Parts of it read like the reminiscences of someone who had been there. I admit I found the digressions  interesting, but they had nothing to do with the plot. And since there were several such interludes, I found it distracting.


blue question marksWhen I am writing I always have to ask myself, should I put this in? Does it help the story in any way? Is it research overload?

More often than not the answer is no. Fascinating it might be, but too much extra detail would only cloud the story.

George Orwell

George Orwell

George Orwell wrote that good prose should be like a window-pane, transparent to the reader and reflecting meaning without the smears of poor construction or the cloudiness of jargon.

(I heard it from the lovely Katie Fforde, so she needs the credit for it, as well as George.)

Katie Fforde





I have been writing Regency and Georgian stories now for decades, so I don’t quite go back to basics each time, but there are always details to research for each new book. It would be pretty boring otherwise, don’t you think?

For example, The Laird’s Runaway Wife is set in London in 1750 and much of the action takes place in London, near the Strand.

Essex_Street,_London_at_WatergateTrying not to give away the plot here, so let’s just say I was I looking for ways someone might secretly arrive and depart from the city.  Many of the streets between the Thames and the Strand have “stairs” or steps leading down to the water’s edge. in the 1750s watermen ferried passengers to and fro across the river.


Research Overload Rabbit Hole(s) – feel free to skip

Flora MacDonald

Flora MacDonald

I had already learned that a staunch Jacobite, Lady Primrose, lived in Essex Street. When Flora MacDonald was a prisoner in London, Lady P visited her. When Flora was freed, it was Lady P who started the subscription for her, raising more than £1,500 and arranging for Flora to get back to Scotland.

Interesting, but not relevant enough to go into my story. (Rabbit hole #1).

Then I discovered a  fascinating snippet in British History Online concerning a certain antiquarian, Lord Cholmondeley. He said he had visited a house in Essex Street:– “he found, scratched to all appearance with a diamond, on a weather-stained piece of glass in a top room, the following letters, “I. C. U. S. X. & E. R,” which he interpreted, “I see you, Essex, and Elizabeth Regina.” If he was right in his interpretation, it would seem probable that some inquisitive occupant of this room, overlooking Essex House, had seen the Queen when visiting the Earl, and, like Captain Cuttle, had on the spot ‘made a note’ of it.”


Lovely story, but not relevant to my book at all. (Rabbit hole #2)

And who the Dickens is Captain Cuttle???

Go look that up for yourself!

You can’t please all the people…

Heyer: An Infamous Army

Heyer: An Infamous Army

Heyer’s An Infamous Army is an example of that — many people love it. Some think  there’s a tad too much detail about the battle.

I  must admit I have not re-read it as much as many of Heyer’s other books. It’s all a matter of preference.

E-books don’t have the same constraints as printed books, but do we all want to read works that are 100k words, and counting? Sometimes, perhaps, but for fast-paced yarns, perhaps it’s better to leave out some things.

What do you think?


8 thoughts on “Research Overload (or don’t let facts spoil a good story)

  1. lesley2cats

    The nicest compliment I ever receive about my books is how good my research is – an odd one, but it’s because I use historical backgrounds, even though my books are contemporary. I know a lot more than I need to about Elizabeth I and her spy ring – including Shakespeare! Lovely piece, Sarah and thank you for the Captain Cuttle rabbit hole!

    1. Sarah Mallory

      You sum it up beautifully there, Lesley, you know a lot more than you need to put in your book – but I believe its the background knowledge helps colour what you actually put in and it makes people comfortable with it. Thanks for dropping by.

    1. Sarah Mallory

      Thanks Christina, it’s always a tricky one, how much info to put into a book. Too little and the story is weak, too much and it can be boring. Oh, the decisions of a writer’s life, eh?

  2. Joanna

    So enjoyable, thanks, Sarah. I love going down research rabbit holes. In fact, I’ve just spent the morning doing that, re vampires. But must now stop and do some actual writing as my beloved vampire is calling to me…

    1. Sarah Mallory

      Thank you for emerging from your rabbit holes and taking the time to comment, Joanna! Maybe for vampires, you are more likely to disappear into bat-caves (and that can take in more than one direction!)

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