Writing Craft: Don’t let that research show! by Karen Harper


Since 1982, I’ve been published with over 70 novels, both historicals set in England and U.S.-set contemporary romantic suspense. I love to take my readers to interesting places and bring in fascinating careers for the hero or heroine. But if there is one thing I’ve learned, it’s to not let the research I love to do stand out. It has to be smoothly stirred into plot, characters or setting.

When I wrote my Amish-set rom/sus novels, I worked hard to blend in Amish beliefs and their way of life. My readers would have rolled their eyes at the very least if I had let some character spout their traditions, so this is where the old (and important!) saying, ‘Show, not tell’ comes in.

I’ve tackled a heroine who worked in the ginseng trade, one who was a deep sea diver (which I definitely am not!) and numerous heroes who may be lawyers, arson investigators or small town sheriffs. Even an obstetrician who was in a struggle with a midwife! And here, I was “only” a high school English teacher.

But working research into a book gets even more dangerous when I write my historical novels focusing on the lives of real women, such as Queen Elizabeth I. I had to be extra careful and (I hope!) clever when I wrote my Edwardian novel, THE ROYAL NANNY, which is out this month. After putting in three years of intensive reading about the late Victorians and Edwardians, I had to be very selective of what to share.

Although I had been to England many times, I made a special trip to visit places that would help me with this Downton Abbey era novel: The Victoria and Albert Museum and Buckingham Palace. (No, Her Majesty was not in.) This is the first historical setting I’ve used where I can see photos—even some YouTube videos—which make the characters come much more alive than studying the old portraits of my characters “hanging out” in museums.

So I was especially excited about the research work I’d done, but…

With THE ROYAL NANNY, I really concentrated on my rules to not hit the reader over the head with research I was proud of and loved doing. Just as it was forbidden in the Victorian age to show a flash of ankle or “limb,” I tried to remember these don’t guidelines:

–Don’t put research in dialogue unless it’s short and necessary. Beware, because it will usually should fakey. In other words, I can’t have young Bertie (of The King’s Speech) say, “I just love living here at Sandringham which Grannie Victoria bought for her son to keep him out of trouble.” Work this into the author’s voice or narration. Or at least have an outsider ask for information before someone answers.

–Don’t put big chunks of research together. Readers today don’t want to read four paragraphs straight of description unless it is absolutely necessary to the story. Break it up.

–Don’t copy research. Of course, even if you really liked a piece of research, rework it to make it your own. Not only could it be plagiarism otherwise, but key points need to be selected and written to fit the story.

–Don’t let a modern voice or word creep in. I sometimes go crazy when the copy editor who is reading for each little detail, asks, “Are you sure this word (or book title or whatever) was in use in 1885?” But she is right to ask.

Research is like the perfume of a novel. However much of it you have on your dresser, however much you love the scent, its romantic name or the ad promoting it, just a touch in the right place goes a long way. If the book is fiction, even based on reality, avoid spilling too much out at once or your story will be overpowering and not seductive.

Karen Harper HP

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