Cheryl St.John: How Much Research is Too Much?

stjohn.jpgThere are definitely plenty of things a writer needs to know before she starts to write her book. Characters don’t exist in a vacuum; they have occupations and homes and families and histories and nationalities and all number of things we need to know to make them three-dimensional and bring realism to the story.


My current book, Her Colorado Man, is set just outside a town I used in a previous story. Once I’ve done all the work for a setting, it only makes sense to get some mileage out of it. Colorado is a common setting for me. I own picture books, reference books and maps as well as books on plants and animals. I had another reason for the location, other than its convenience, however: I made my heroine part of a large German family who own a brewery, so I had to select a location to support the operation. The cold-water streams that flow from the mountains were perfect.


2357162875_52c0a164b0And then I had to know enough about brewing beer to decide which method they used and why, and which year would be workable. I chose a year when bottling was first being introduced and also a year that there was a huge Exposition in Denver. So my actual location and the brewery are fabricated, but everything about the people and production and operation and the time period are factual. Keeping facts as close to real as possible makes the reader believe.


I also had to know something about my hero who comes to this town from Alaska, where he’s been delivering mail between tent towns and postal stations. That research was probably the most difficult, because all the facts easily found about Juneau and the Yukon pertain to the gold rush, which didn’t happen until after my time period. So that part of my education took more searching.


So besides looking up breweries, their operation and types of brewing methods before I started, I searched for information on sled dogs, Alaskan temperatures, modes of travel and traditional Bavarian foods. I ended up with a binder full of facts and pictures. Sometimes I have to make an additional folder on one subject, like say liveries or beer making. In my opinion, you can’t ever know too much about your location or your topic or the cultures of your people.


expositionConfession: I’m a paper person. I’ve learned to use PBWiki, personal online storage, but even though I have that ability and I’ve bookmarker the online information, I still want to be able to flip through my binder and put my finger on that list of names I was going to use. I need to see the paragraph about the competitive advantages of lager brewing over ale. That’s just me. If you are a writer, maybe you’ve got a smarter way to store your research, and if so, I applaud you. The important thing is that your method works for you, and you’re not losing writing time searching for something you’ve lost.


9780373295715Now just because I have all that info doesn’t mean I will ever need to or that I ever should use it all. A writer knows far more about her subjects than she should ever use in a story. But she needs to know it, because if she didn’t, she’d make mistakes. I have many writer friends who love the research part so much that it takes on a life of its own. Once they start, they can’t stop.


Here’s how to know when to quit researching: If your study is cutting into your production, you’re researching too much. If you get caught up in the fact-finding and aren’t tallying a page count, you’re doing too much research. If you’re not putting words on pages, you’re avoiding writing. Give your study a rest and write the story. You can learn the rest of the details as you need them. I learn enough to get started and then I begin. When I get to something I don’t know, I simply google the subject. If I’m on a roll and need to know something, I leave an asterisk and come back to it after the muse is burned out for the day.


So, yes there is a lot a writer needs to know, but the wise writer knows when to call a halt get down to business.


Her Colorado Man is in stores now. It’s also available in hardcover through Doubleday and Rhapsody book clubs.


+ posts

15 thoughts on “Cheryl St.John: How Much Research is Too Much?”

  1. Cheryl, you are so right. It’s easy for me to get lost in the act of researching facts – I love the process of research. I think you must know your time period and setting well enough to “be” there, to make it real. The details of hat styles, for instance, can be added after the first draft is done.

    Thanks for making me think through my process again.

  2. It’s easy for all of us to get bogged down – or to take a trail we don’t need to follow and find obscure things no one will really need to know. LOL But it’s all fascinating to us, don’t you know.

    I can’t believe how the web and google have made my research so simple. Everything is at the tips of our fingers–wonderful, but dangerous.

  3. I think there’s the threat as well for the writer to do all this incredible research….and then want to use ALL of it. So the book becomes overstuffed with “stuff” and instead of enhancing the story, the research bogs it down. Or worse yet, detracts from the romance – which is really why the reader is there to begin with 😉

    Cheryl: I just finished Her Colorado Man yesterday and I loved all the brewery stuff in that story. It was so interesting, and really gave the book a different “feel” from many of the other historicals I’ve read this year.

    And it’s killing me, so I have to ask. The dressmaking sisters in Denver. The Halverson’s. Why do I know that surname? What previous book there were in. My brain is like swiss cheese this morning.

  4. Stunning cover, Cheryl. Just gorgeous. My current series is about a Colorado family, too, but it’s a small town/ranch setting.

    I’ve yet to run into anybody who researches like I do. I rarely take notes. Just absorb and absorb until it’s all in my head. If I need something specific, I’m pretty good at remembering where I found it. Weird, I know, but it keeps me from over-researching and helps me stay focused on what’s important.

  5. Thanks, Wendy! I really loved the brewery setting because it was different.

    I haven’t used the Halversons in another story, Wendy. I do have a friend with that last name, and that’s what made me think of it. You read so many books – maybe someone else used it? I don’t know how you keep them all straight in your head, actually. If I read that many books, they’d all be a jumble.

  6. Thank you, Tanya!

    Elizabeth, that is amazing that you can remember things so well. I take notes and print out pages so I can go back and find the information when I need it.

  7. Oh, research…that road is certainly paved with good intentions, but I’m so easily distracted! I could never understand how anyone can find history boring. I’s one great story after another. I’m an expert at fooling myself that I just HAVE to know the details. It’s the best way of avoiding writing I know!

  8. Cheryl, I love hearing other writer’s techniques for research. It’s neat that you used the same town in Colorado that you’d already used for a setting. Sure cuts down on some of the time. And since you were needing to fit a brewery into the story, that’s perfect. You always come up with some of the best ideas for stories.

    I found Her Colorado Man in Walmart in Lubbock but I haven’t read it yet. It sure looks good. Congratulations on making Doubleday and Rhapsody! Woo-Hoo!

  9. Hi Cheryl!

    Great post. I love the cover of your new book, by the way. It does look really good.

    As far as research goes, I don’t know what to say. I understand the idea that too much is not a good thing — then you can get into preaching in your stories instead of entertaining — but I do think the more research you do, the better. I think the story comes alive with research and I think some of my best ideas also come from research — of all things — history books, all kinds of fiction books — going there — being there — in truth, I love research. : )

  10. Cheryl,

    I truly love the topic you picked today. I do alot of research too. But like you said you have to stop and write some then go back to research when it calls for it.

    I love researching and have learned alot about different Native American rituals and beliefs. I have done alot of research lately for my Native American Mystery that I will soon have finished and I have alot of research in it

    Thanks Cheryl for your wise words because a writer can learn alot for other writers and you are a great friend that I cherish

    Walk in harmony,

  11. Cheryl: Well dang. I could have sworn I’d seen that name in one of your other books. Oh well.

    I’m terrible at remembering character names. Really awful. I’m better with plot points and conflict. That I tend to remember.

  12. You have picked a great place and time for your story. We lived in Colorado for 3 years and LOVED it. Wish we could have moved back there when we retired. We were in Colorado Springs and it has grown too much for our liking.
    I get carried away with the history blogs I’ve found and the links from them. It is so very interesting hours will go by before I realize it. Then I have to get a few hours sleep before going to bed.
    I read historicals for the information, the tidbits on culture, places, people and events. Yes the romance is a part of it, but I want to be in another time and place. If I just wanted romance, any contemporary would do.
    I’m like you, I need that paper to handle. It is just a more comfortable way to operate. I’m not proficient enough to store it on my computer or disc or zip drive and then be able to find it again. I can operate with paper.
    Keep up the great writing. I do enjoy your books.

  13. I have been dying for this book, Cheryl. YAY. I love the set up behind it all.

    Wendy, I think you’re thinking of Her Montana Man, Cheryl’s book from…is it last summer, Chery? Or longer ago than that?

  14. Hi Cheryl! I bought your book at Walmart a couple of days ago! Can’t wait to read it once I’m caught up on unpacking, etc..

    My favorite thing about research is how little things enrich a story. Just the right detail turns a book into a “you-are-there” experience. I love that!

Comments are closed.