Research and Backstory in Fiction: A Strong Foundation, or a Tangled Web of Trouble?

by Jacqueline Sheehan

As fiction writers, we create worlds for our characters to inhabit, and those worlds must be authentic–full of interesting context and realistic setting detail. As a fiction writer, you should know not only what your character likes to eat for breakfast, but what song they might be listening to on the radio in, say, 1971. You should know not only what they talk about in therapy, if they go, but how much it costs to fill up the tank on the way there. You should know not only who they come home to (or dream about) in the evening, but also what they might see if they turn on the nightly news…

Writers tend to fall into two camps: those who love research and those who loathe it. I am in the first camp, despite my initial protests. The problem for me is, unless I set firm limits on the goal of my research, I can easily fall down the rabbit hole of endless historical and social connections and I won’t see the light of day for weeks.  Likewise, it’s easy to get caught up in endlessly plotting and developing rich, detailed and fascinating character history, and your story needs this in order to feel true. But backstory, like research, can be unwieldy to navigate and integrate, often bogging down the plot and killing narrative tension.

How much backstory is essential and how much is too much? And how many weeks should you spend researching your fictional world in order to make it authentic? Is it okay to delve deeply into a topic, or to unearth pages of family dynamics about your characters that might not even end up in the final draft? And once you have all this rich, contextual knowledge, what is the best way to convey it to your reader without turning it into an information dump?

On April 30, I’ll be discussing the answers to these questions and many more in my 1/2 day Research and Backstory workshop! Writers will come away with a list of research best-practices and will learn incredibly useful tips for conveying context and backstory in a manner that keeps the story moving and the reader turning pages. Hope to see you there!

Jacqueline Sheehan is the New York Times bestselling author of: The Comet’s TaleLost & Found, Now & ThenPicture ThisThe Center of the World, and The Tiger in the House.  She will be leading a workshop on Saturday, April 30 on Research and Backstory online for Writers in Progress

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