How much research is too much research?

Since my fellow Emus have been discussing research lately, I feel compelled to throw in my well-researched two cents–or, if you prefer, 1.3 cents in Euros, 1.6 Japanese Yen, and half a Russian Ruble. I’ve done my research. But have I done too much?

Just like Cynthia needed to get the facts straight in her non-fiction work, J. and Jeannie needed to set the stage for their historical fiction novels, and Mike needed to get his sorry butt out there and talk to people, I also needed to do some research for my middle grade novel, FLYING THE DRAGON.

One of my characters comes from Japan, so I drew from my experience of living in Japan and teaching at the Yokohama International School. Was it enough? Not even close. I was lucky to come across two teachers from Japanese immersion schools in the county where I teach who were willing to look over my manuscript for any cultural or linguistic faux pas. Hoo boy, am I glad they did. Although I was familiar with Japanese culture on the surface, I didn’t know the ins and outs of daily family and school life.

Nor did I know a whit about kite-making or rokkaku (kite fighting), which also features prominently in the novel. I asked two experts, who kindly told me everything I needed to know. And maybe a little bit extra.

Okay, maybe a lot extra.

Photo taken by me at the very kite festival that appears in my novel. As far as I know, there are no people strapped to any of these kites.

My kite fighting research led to a history of kite fighting and flying. Hey, did you know that people used to be strapped to kites to spy behind enemy lines? Oh, and legend says there once was a thief in Japan who strapped himself to a kite and soared to the top of Nagoya Castle to steal golden fish scales from the roof. He was eventually caught and boiled in oil.

Not that..ahem… any of that’s in my novel…

Meet the fugu fish. Yum...

And! Speaking of fish scales…one of my character’s hometown in Japan is right on the sea, which led me to links on the deadly fugu fish, a delicacy in Japan. Japanese chefs actually need a license to prove they can safely remove the pouch of poison so their customers don’t croak.

Are there fugu fish in my novel? Um, not exactly.

Okay, no. There are no fugu fish at all.

So where does all this research lead me? For one, I’ve got plenty of material for at least one early chapter book about a fugu fish strapped to a kite.

As for the rest, I hope my novel will ring true for anyone who knows about life in Japan and fighting kites. And for those who know nothing of Japan or fighting kites, I hope it will give them an authentic taste.

Just don’t taste the fugu…


Filed under Editing and Revising, Research

11 responses to “How much research is too much research?

  1. Cynthia Levinson

    Maybe doing research for a novel or nonfiction work is like cooking. As a Jewish mother, I’m sure that, if everything I cook for a meal is eaten, I didn’t make enough. So, if I used all of my research in a book, then I’d have to conclude that I should have researched more, even if I didn’t use it. Or, maybe research is the anti-Goldilocks. In terms of amount, there’s no such thing as “just right.”


    • Natalie Dias Lorenzi

      “Maybe research is the anti-Goldilocks.” Love it!

      I think Jewish mothers must be a lot like Italian mothers-in-law. I’ll just have to put my leftovers in the freezer for later…


  2. What I love about this post is how it shows that research is like a web, or links in a chain: one thing leads to something else. Not all of it is necessary, and you’re so right that you have to rein in that instinct to dump in all of your knowledge, but that richness of knowledge will show through in the confidence and detail of your writing. As a reader, I can’t stand authors who show off, but I can always tell if a writer’s faking it. Kudos to you!


    • Natalie Dias Lorenzi

      Thanks for stopping by, mfantaliswrites! You’ve made me glad I didn’t slip in any lines like, “I’d rather eat a fugu fish than fly kites with you.”



  3. Lynda Mullaly Hunt

    “…fugu fish strapped to a kite.”

    Love it! What a mental image! I love this post–informative as well as entertaining.

    I, too, have more knowledge of the setting than is necessary for my second book, but I also think that all of that extra info bleeds through, and becomes an importatnt part of the voice. Sometimes, all of those undercurrents make the writing feel more authentic.


    • Natalie Dias Lorenzi

      I think you’re right, Lynda. I’ve heard that some authors “interview” their main characters just to get to know them better. Glad I don’t have to interview a flying fugu fish. 😉


  4. As I’m just delving into my research again, this was the perfect post to read!

    (And it really does sound like you have enough for another — albeit very different — book!)


  5. J. Anderson Coats

    Your new gravitar icon should be a fugu fish strapped to a kite. See to it!

    But I agree with mfantaliswrites – when I research, there are levels I keep in mind. There are things I need to know as the writer (that my characters don’t know or really need to know) then there are things that we all should know. There are details that the reader should know explicitly, and those that they can get through context.

    There can only really be “too much” research when it becomes apparent that you’ve done research. There should be a world and a story, with no seams showing.


    • Natalie Dias Lorenzi

      Well said, J. I just finished reading Laura Resau’s Queen of Water, and read in the author’s note how she traveled twice to Equador to get the details right. She did a beautiful job–everything in the book felt absolutely necessary to the story.

      Off to Photoshop a fugu fish onto a flying kite…


  6. Pingback: “Setting” the Mood with Music | EMU's Debuts

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