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The devil is in the detail

Novelists can usually be divided into two camps: those that enjoy research, and those that loathe it. I belong to the former, and spend hours trawling through books and articles for subject-related matter.

But how much detail should end up in a novel is open to debate. Too much and you risk the reader’s irritation. Yes, some readers enjoy textbook style reporting of facts rather than the study and development of character, but they are usually in the minority. Most people want story, drama, and all the elements that go with it.

The modern age calls for a quick and easy transference of knowledge. People’s attention span we’re told is ruthlessly short. Longwinded descriptions of hedgerows and floral displays are no longer acceptable to today’s reader, who tends to want the action primed and delivered straight from the hip.

But, like the foundations of a house, facts give the novel an undeniable solidity. You might not always be aware of them, but they’re there, underpinning the action and bringing the scenery to life. And, if the writer knows his stuff, he can afford to hold back a little. The reader will automatically infer his authority and be grateful he’s been left to get on with the story.

Researching a subject you’re unfamiliar with is a challenge, and one that many writers choose to avoid. Personally, I find it exhilarating, and can’t wait to uncover the secrets of hidden worlds. Once I’m drawn in to these places I’m lost for days, absorbing the sights and sounds of cultures and people I might never have met. Writing about them immerses me totally in their environment. Hopefully, some of that passion will transfer to the page, and the reader will also pick up on it and enjoy the journey too.


Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at

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