Too much information

Particularly in historicals, but in any novel where there is some sort of specialist knowledge, I think a definite sin is too much information. I learned this the hard way. Quite often, especially when writing about a period or incident that is little-known, the temptation is there to try get the reader up to speed.

My rule of thumb on this is if you are putting something in to clarify your story for the reader, you’ve written the story wrong.

Seamless. That is the watchword towards which I strive πŸ™‚ .

Sure, we all fall in love with some little quirky historical fact or anecdote and yearn to put it in our stories. I fell in love with two, in a past WIP. One involving dried peas and another involving saucy laundresses. I managed to include both by integrating them into the plot, with the added satisfaction of knowing that both really happened, and that sometimes, fact is stranger than fiction. But at no point did I need to explain the why of these two things. They were (hopefully) a seamless part of the story, naturally emerging so that what happened seemed perfectly logical without any author intervention.

Reading a novel (contemporary or historical) where characters start giving each other facts and figures that have nothing really to do with the plot and which, as colleagues, they surely both already know, is a death knell to me. Often, the author is really writing what they know, they’re a lawyer, an art historian, a sailor, and they cannot resist including a whole lot of cool facts about their world, whether the story calls for these details or not.

As a history lover, and a researcher who tries to get her hands on as many primary sources as possible, I often find myself longing to add in things that I know shouldn’t be there. So I start a little side file, write them in, and twice this had turned out to be my Author’s Note. It’s a great solution to the bursting-to-tell-cool-stuff problem, and keeps the focus on the story, rather than the cool stuff.

So, whether its because you live in the town you’ve set your stories, and you tend to put in too many street names and places, just to show you know your ‘hood, or you’re writing a historical set in a period you know intimately, or your heroine is a specialist assassin and you’ve researched weapons and have come up with some gizmos you’d just love to share with your readers, what’s your Achilles heel in the TMI department?

About Michelle Diener

Michelle Diener writes historical fiction and fantasy. To find out more about her and her novels, you can visit her website.
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26 Responses to Too much information

  1. Liz Kreger says:

    Personally speaking, Michelle … if there is a period of time that I’m unfamiliar with, I do want to be educated. I’d much rather read it in a non-fiction or romance than in a text book.

    But I understand where you’re coming from. Two people who know the information is not going to discuss it in any kind of detail. This is where an author has to be careful. My WIP is set in Milwaukee … which I obviously know well seeing I’ve lived here all my life. However, my hero is from out of town. This gives me a little license to give street names, hotels and restaurants that actually exist in this city. Not in detail, mind you, but enough to anchor the story. 😎

    I think it would be interesting to be able to add something to the back of a story (after the ending) where you’re able to include some of this information. Such as apple cider making in the eighteenth century, or your dried peas, for instance. A reader would have the option of reading and of learning the methods of these little known facts.

    However, I doubt the publisher would be too keen on that idea. πŸ˜†

  2. D.A. Riser says:

    Thanks for the post, Michelle. I battle with this all the time. Those of us that try our hand at historical fiction are probably all historians at heart. Especially after oodles of research, it’s hard to resist adding in little tidbits of ‘interesting’ goodies that I learned. If a publisher permits, I do love books that include an appendix and glossary. Sifting through all the leftover information always helps satisfy my appetite for the book.

  3. Edie Ramer says:

    I’m pretty sure I don’t put TMI in my books. That’s one writing fault I don’t have. I just read a book that would have been great without the TMI and backstory dumps. She’s a bestselling writer, and maybe that’s why she gets away with it. Or maybe she had a new editor who didn’t edit as well as her previous books.

    I’ve read other books of hers, and they didn’t have the “skippable” parts. If this one was the first book of hers I’d read, I probably wouldn’t read any more.

  4. Michelle says:

    Liz, I think you’re doing a seamless job in your WIP. And authors often do put in additional information in an Author’s Note. I love reading them.

  5. Michelle says:

    Hi D.A. I’m the same, love those extra bits at the end, and I love reading bibliography lists (yep, my idea of a good time πŸ˜‰ ). And in my own work, I like to create an Author’s Note for my own use, just to document which incidents I included that are true, and which bits I made up. Just in case someone asks me later, I have it nice and handy πŸ™‚ .

  6. Michelle says:

    LOL, Edie. Reading a book with TMI was the inspiration for this post. Great story, but completely ruined by some funny ideas about dialogue and waaaaaay to much information that was just there because the author thought it was cool.

  7. Jody W. says:

    Tangents and hijinx that I try to convince myself reveal “character” — does that count?

  8. Kath Calarco says:

    I live in the “less is more” camp. Yet, the one and only time I had an editor, she wanted me to live in a “more is more” camp” by adding information that I felt frivolous to my story. It had to do with types of horse stalls. Who cares? I didn’t. I wasn’t writing about where horses lived, and it wasn’t necessary to move the plot forward or add to the scene. The editor was a horse enthusiast. I guess she needed to know where that horse stood in the barn.

    I wasn’t writing about Flicka, Black Beauty or Mr. Ed, and to this day, don’t care where any of them hung out in the stable.

    Any way, it didn’t matter. The publisher folded and that manuscript now sits collecting dust on the hard-drive.

    Coming from a reader’s pov, I’m still in the “less is more” camp. Novels, for me, are for entertainment. If I want education I’ll tune into PBS or History Channel. πŸ™‚

  9. LaDonna says:

    Hey Michelle, great blog! I love “more” I guess. And a really curious thing happened during January. I read a book from a well-known writer and there was head-hopping going on throughout. The next book I picked up, also well-known author, had backstory in chapter one. Huge story info. I loved both stories, and I guess it goes to show all the “imaginary” rules do get broken in this business. Of course, these are gals that carved a place for themselves in this business. I’ve been reading them for years, and they’ve always written this way.

    A litte confusing, I’m sure, for anyone who’s been scolded for doing these things, but then again, that’s the business we’re in. πŸ™‚ I’ve been slapped on the wrist a time or two also.

  10. First, I hate research. But at the same time I think hating it works for me because I’m less apt to dump a lot of useless information on my readers anyway. In fact, I always roll my eyes with an oh-god-here-we-go-again attitude toward my developers whenever they hog up a meeting with an info dump because they like to hear themselves talk. I don’t and don’t care. So, I guess that “keep it simple” attitude trickles into my writing, too.

  11. Michelle, I definitely have to keep my info-hound on a leash sometimes. Fantasy world-building especially makes is easy sometimes to slip into long explanations, but it always clicks so much better once I go and rework it. Characters wandering around in a world they just ‘get’ and don’t need to explain makes it so much more believable and immersive.

    I’ve been prone to adding too much random info at times too, when I don’t know something and do some quickie research. I recall something about checking stable structure so I knew where my thief was climbing about… and it sort of wandered off from there, in case some enthusiast about medieval stables comes along and needed proof I know my stuff. Needless to say, it was axed once I got to the bloody point! πŸ˜‰

  12. Theresa says:

    I’m another one who wants the *more*. Partly because I love actually learning new interesting things about the different time periods or if it’s set in contemporary times, I like learning about different cities or jobs.

    But partly because to my taste it adds depth to the book and characters and world the author is creating.

    Which no doubt explains why my favorite author is Guy Gavriel Kay who writes a kind of Historical Fiction.

    I do agree, however, that some times the author can cross the line where the info becomes repetitious and boring. So it can be a fine line to straddle

    I also really like the author adding bits about the cities the characters are in. Particularly if it’s a city I know well. πŸ˜† I love pouring through the descriptions to see if they got it right. πŸ˜† Once I found this book that was set up in the Leavenworth area– the author mentioned hiking the enchantment trails, coming down into the city of Leavenworth and then on to Wenatchee and Pangborn airport. I LOVED it!!! The author had obviously been there and really experienced the area, they’d added details that only someone who was very familiar with the area would have known.

    Of course, the fact that everyone and I do mean everyone in the Leavenworth/Wenatchee area died toward the beginning of the book due to an apocalyptic plague, that the POV character had brought down from the Enchantment Lakes made me wonder if the author harbored resentments toward the area. :stressed:

  13. Deb Maher says:

    I smiled when I read this. A few hours ago I posted a (very slightly) related piece. Great minds think alike, I guess. πŸ˜‰

    Research is sort of like a character’s back story. We need to know the history, just not tell it in mind-numbing detail. Maybe another occasion to use “Show. Don’t tell.” I agree–seamless is a good watchword.

    Oh, the bird pic is sensational!

  14. Alex Bledsoe says:

    I always try to write the first draft of the story before doing the deep historical research. This does two things: 1) it makes sure the story and characters work independent of the setting, and 2) it gives me a framework for my research so I can maximize my time. That way I search out only the facts that I need for my story, without the danger of those facts *dictating* the story, or leading it too far astray. But I do try to leave wiggle room for those weird true bits that are just too good to leave out.

  15. Cynthia Eden says:

    One of the things that can drag me out of a story is language overkill. By that, I mean using too much Gaelic or Ancient Greek or…well, I think you get it. And I think this is a fine line because you want to have some usage, but you don’t need to have so much that you have to include a translation in the novel, too.

  16. D.A. Riser says:

    In regard to Cynthia’s comment, does anyone have any guidance on what is too much ancient language? With my ancient Greek novel, I often battled between the balance of using Greek names too much versus wanting to give a historical ‘feel’ to things.

    I find long names for people to be a problem. Names of cities rarely seem to be an issue. Places and things are usually okay as long as I make consistent use of them and give reminders the first few uses. Does this sound about right?

  17. Michelle says:

    LOL, Jody. I don’t know. I’m good at tangents myself πŸ™‚ .

  18. Michelle says:

    I love it when I get education and entertainment from a book, Kathy, but I’ll bring up the seamless word again. The best for me is to put a book down and realized I suddenly know a lot about a period in time or place, but didn’t realize I was gaining the knowledge, because the story carried me along. When the author is clearly intervening to tell stuff for the sake of ‘educating’ the reader, they are going wrong.

  19. Michelle says:

    LaD, I think it comes down to what works best for the story. If that’s what the story needs, go for it.

  20. Michelle says:

    Marcia, I’m constantly amazed at how little of my research makes it into the book, but perhaps, for me personally, I need to know that extra stuff to write with confidence.

  21. Michelle says:

    LOL, Hayley. You sound like me and the firing range of the cannons on my Napoleonic War British and French ships. My CPs got a kick out of that, if I recall, although that was a good couple of books ago.

  22. Michelle says:

    Theresa, I love learning things from books, but I don’t think it works to be told those things in fiction, they must come out of the story naturally. ‘Telling’ the readers stuff is author intervention, and author ego, in a way.

    I’m assuming the book you loved had the information as a natural part of the plot. And yes, hope the author just thought the plot was cool, with no grudge against your home state πŸ™‚ .

  23. Michelle says:

    Great minds, Deb, LOL. And the bird pic is funny, isn’t it? That bird looks really grumpy.

  24. Michelle says:

    Alex, I would love to do things your way. I just can’t. I need to know where I am before I begin. How I do that is while I’m writing story A, especially towards the end, I start reading the research for Story B, so when it comes to write it, I have a good idea, and then I dip into my reference works as and when I reach the relevant point in the story. But going in cold? Maybe I should give it a go, but the thought makes me nervous, LOL.

  25. Michelle says:

    Case in point being the book that inspired this post, Cindy. Too much Italian and French, sentences of it, that went untranslated. I speak and read French but not Italian, and I found it irritating after a while.

  26. Michelle says:

    D.A., these things are so personal. It sounds as if you’re giving it a lot of thought and using care, so I’m sure you’re good to go.

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