Friday, January 11, 2008

Info dumping or oops your research is showing

I am going to take a slight break from Writer's Block to mention that bane of historical fiction -- info dumping aka vomiting on the page, regurgitating all the research you did and letting the reader know about whatever. Actually it is the bane of fiction, but historical novelists can really fall prey to it as some of the source material is out of copyright.
Sometimes, it seems like the author is waving a big placard -- Look at me and aren't I clever? Or I did all this research on x and you are going to hear about it now! But to my mind, it is just boring.
At the moment, a historical romance novelist stands accused over stepping the mark on info dumping and actually plagiarising research. I make no comment on the ins and the outs of the case.
The basic advice is do NOT Info Dump. It is an easy way for novelists to get into trouble, and not simply with accusations of stealing but more importantly with accusations of boring the reader senseless.
Every piece of information that is there must be there because it furthers the story, not because the novelist is very interested in the way lace is made or how a jet engine works. The reader is interested in the story. The story is king in commercial fiction writing, not the research. Fiction readers are tension junkies.
There is a convention called fair use. This means no one owns facts or ideas. It is the way that the writer puts together facts and ideas that makes the work the writer's own. And one could get into a big argument whether or not something is a fact or someone else's wording about a fact. And if you are getting into that arguement, it means that the writer has not done her job properly because the fact/info dumping has pulled the reader out of the story.
The amount of research I do is huge. I enjoy it. It gives me confidence to write about the time period.
But do I want to pull the reader out the story? No.
The reader is reading for the romance, not for information on how the steam engine was developed. And right now, I could bore you stupid on steam engines of 1814. The Newcomen atmospheric v the Trevithick high pressure system. Blenkinsopp's rackett system. It is so bad that I am muttering under my breath at The Industrial Revolutionaries as Weightman was imprecise on certain things. I have done my research at the Lit and Phil with the primary source documents. Mutter, mutter, mutter. But none of it will get into my current wip. It just means I know what my hero knows.
Unless a reader is an avid fan of high pressure systems then they are going to skip over it, and get to the good bit. Possibly put the book down and never come back. Possibly throw the book against the wall. Possibly never buy another one of my books again.
Writing is all about furthering the story. It is about using bits of research to increase the emotional tension, rather than to kill it.
If you feel the need to info dump, you should be writing non fiction about the subject, not a commercial novel.
It is not what a novel is about. Every piece of information needs to be furthering the story. It needs to earn its place in the story. It should also be seen through your characters' filter. Which mean it should be coloured with the novelist's words rather than a strict and stark recitation of facts.
Why is this information important to the character? Why does the information need to be conveyed to the reader, and how. How do you put that information in the language of the story? How do you give that little glimpse into the world? How do you make the world leap off the page in vivid technicolour? How can you world build and make that world your own?
In writing, world building is so important. If a writer has not built her world properly and is not comfortable with it, she will be more tempted to info dump.
There are no short cuts in writing.
The biggest thing I ever learnt and this was from Donald Maass -- was tension, tension, tension. The reader demand tension. Make your book as full of tension as possible and you will not be tempted to info dump.
When you are revising, any time you see a place where there is a lot of information, it should be a Red Flag. You should be looking to see how you can up the tension. How can you get the reader to turn the page? Every scene should be accomplishing several things. Make those scenes work for you. Add little bits of research in your own words. Do not be didactic and teach the reader. Assume the reader possesses a modicum of intelligence. Allow the reader into your world.
So the moral of this blog is: DO NOT INFO DUMP. Weave the information into your story and make it part of the warp and wheft of your story. Make it belong to you.

1 comment:

Donna Alward said...

Romantic fiction should not read as a text, you are quite right. And the more you know, the more you risk author intrusion into the story, but at the same time you NEED to know your research so that what you DO include is accurate.

Personally I love it when I can tell the author has researched her topic really well but uses it with a light hand. It really does have to be about developing the story, and adding in those little bits of authenticity.