How much of that actually belongs in your book?
The simple answer: as much as you can make inextricably relevant to this character and her specific story.
Here are a few benchmarks you can use to assess the inclusion of your research.
1. Does your research complicate the journey of your protagonist toward her story goal, as set out in the beginning of the book?
This speaks to reader expectation. Let’s say your character is a woman trying to gain acceptance as a physician in 19th century Chicago. Research tells you that the Great Chicago Fire started in 1871, and there’s room for doubt as to whether it was started by Mrs. O’Leary’s cow. So you create a morning-after scene in which your protagonist discusses her alternative theories about the fire with her neighbors, who report in about the extensive damage the fire caused. Good enough?
No. This has absolutely nothing to do with your character gaining acceptance as a physician. Because you haven’t raised expectations about the ramifications of this fire from the outset, your reader just won’t care. She’ll start to skim, looking for that point when this story gets back on track. She wants to know if the heroine will be respected as a physician or not!
Now if your character must use a Bunsen burner (research: invented in 1854!) to mix up her own medications because the male-dominated pharmacy industry won’t have anything to do with her, and she is so tired she gets the ingredients wrong, creating an explosion that some reporter later blames on Mrs. O’Leary’s cow…perfect.
2. Is your protagonist immersed in this conflict deeply enough to motivate her behavior?
It’s not enough for your character to arrive in town, hear about the fire, and vow to be a physician because too many lives were lost.
Your character should be unpacking her bags when the first alarms are heard and immediately move into the fray. She will roll up her sleeves and pull people from the wreckage, triage, and set up a field hospital all while the men are still strategizing in the town hall. The historic event itself will help propel her toward her story goal.
3. Have you fully explored all the ways this research can interweave your characters and raise the story stakes?
What if Mrs. O’Leary became a character? When your protagonist learns the a reporter blames the fire on the cow, she keeps mum—she would never become a respected physician if her culpability got out. But her guilt draws her to the cow’s owner, and they become friends, even as the woman secludes herself from the public eye because of shame—and a medical condition caused from smoke inhalation. If your protagonist can cure her, her reputation will benefit, even as her secret erodes her soul.
4. Have you used the setting to reflect the emotional arc of your protagonist?
If your budding physician is touring through Chicago to witness the devastation the fire wreaked on its wood-based architecture, you’ve written a travelogue, not a novel. But if your protagonist was changed by that fire in a way that motivates or complicates her story goals, you’ll find metaphoric potential in setting details that will make them relevant to her—the charred façade of the bank that represented her security, the inhaled ash that became part of her physical being, the first hopeful buds that emerged the year after the fire.
Earn the inclusion of your research by using these suggestions to interweave the facts you unearthed into the fabric of your story. That’s what fiction’s all about, and your reader will thank you for it.
How much info dump have you (or your editor) removed from your work? Did you ever use your deleted research to write an associated nonfiction piece, whose timing was conveniently related to the release of your book?
Kathryn Craft is a developmental editor at Writing-Partner.com, an independent manuscript evaluation and line editing service. Formerly a dance critic and arts journalist, she now writes women's fiction and memoir. The first chapter of her memoir, Standoff at Ronnie's Place, modified as a stand-alone essay, has been published online by Mason's Road, the online journal of Fairfield University's MFA program. She blogs about Healing through Writing.