The Research Iceberg… a hidden danger for writers and readers alike!

As a SF writer, research is an essential part of my work. But I sometimes do too much of it!

Too much research for that novel?

If the finished product is burdened with heavy lumps of exposition, those annoying scattered blocks will slow down the story  – and the reader’s interest.

Many people saying “You know, I don’t like science-fiction” are often more afraid of those lumps, than they would be  of a gripping story with warm-hearted characters affected by  loyalty conflicts.

Even for fantasy world-builders, the internal logic of the magic-or-supernatural workings requires a fair amount of thinking. And, as magical as the world is, the story must be well grounded in reality. How many fantasy novels, for instance, demonstrate a total lack of knowledge about equine biology and maintenance? One of my friends, who raises horses and loves fantasy, is appalled by what she reads.

And some SF or fantasy authors, too proud of their word-building, dump large exposition blocks on the unsuspecting reader! “I suffered for my art, and so must you!

Research is like an iceberg.
The Research Iceberg - a conundrum for the writer... and the reader!

There is the emerged part, the novel that you enjoy. But whatever the number of pages, there is a larger, hidden part underwater.

Not enough research under it and your story collapses under the contradictions, impossibilities, logical errors and paper-thin characters.

But when the universes and societies are lovingly built, the strong foundation even allows other writers to participate in it! Two examples: The Darkover series by Marion Zimmer Bradley and the Honor Harrington series by David Weber have spawned many paper children.

According to the readers’ ages or familiarity with the concepts, the submerged part of the iceberg is around 90%. For a simpler story, you may choose to tone down the emerged part. A story aimed at children will be a smaller icebeerg. A vast work, like the Martian trilogy of Kim S. Robinson will be a huge iceberg!

Hal Clement, in my view,  left more of his research over the waterline… But that was the good ol-days of science-fiction writing! I found Needle, aimed at young adults, captivating, even when the concept of “teen” and “young adult” did not exist at the time!

In my latest SF novel, La spirale de Lar Jubal, aimed at YA, I set aside about 99%  of my painstaking research and physics calculations for the space station, to concentrate on the visual  and dynamic aspects, and on the character’s conflicts.

Nevertheless, I put some visual information at the beginning of the novel.

An example of world-building... with a floating garden!

In my upcoming SF novel, aimed at the “Oh, I don’t like science fiction” crowd,  there are very few numbers, but more active descriptions of stunning settings and actions. The planet and science aspects are explained only by their impact on the characters’ lives.

And I must manage, of course, the sense of wonder…as this Winds of Tammerlan novel cover suggests.

The SOW cover by the artist

Another time, I will explain why science-fiction is like chocolate…

6 responses to “The Research Iceberg… a hidden danger for writers and readers alike!

  1. I like the iceberg analogy a lot.
    But it’s not just research that is the problem — I think the same analogy applies to backstory. I am editing a novel now where the author insists on stopping the action for pages at a time to tell us about the hero’s childhood, or to have the hero sit down at his computer and google for 20 pages to unearth the backstory of the other characters. It is crazy! Who wants to sit and watch over the hero’s shoulder as he googles? Who wants to listen to pages of childhood when it is unrelated to adult action? It is fine that the author has worked these things out for himself, but disastrous if he tries to include them in the novel. Iceberg!


  2. Exactly, Robert. It is also a valid analogy for the backstory of an imaginary universe or a character! There is a limit to what the writer can expose if s-he wants to keep the reader’s interest. That’s why there are lists of characters, maps or addenda at the end (or beginning) of some novels. A writer can take his sweet time exposing the backstory of his world at the end of a novel. If the fan base allows it, s-he can even publish a “making of” book…
    Marion Zimmer Bradley told in an interview that her husband kept the heavy facts sheets of her Darkover universe, so he knew more about it than she did! Of course, she never put all of this research in the finished stories, but you could feel that there was a rich soil under the character’s feet.


  3. I sometimes go to the extremes with my research, and other times do barely an at all. It is difficult trying to get the reader to see the world as I visualize it. A major problem that was not mentioned is trying to overcome reader expectations built by other popular work. I try to keep my science fiction grounded in real physics, which isn’t to say that I don’t pull stuff out of a hat. If one of my ships has been boosting at hundreds of gravities, even with my imaginary inertial compensators, then to come to a stop or change vectors it has to decelerate for a long period of time. But I feel most readers are used to what they see in movies and TV shows, where ships traveling near the speed of light stop in an instant, or even slow down as soon as the engines are throttled down. Same with ships banking in space, like there is an atmosphere to supply resistance and friction. I have to make some mention to overcome that perception. I try to place most of my exposition in what I hope is natural sounding conversation during action. Not always possible. Say a ship has just fired a score of missiles through accelerator tubes running from stern to bow. I may have a paragraph of description that includes the working of the tubes and engines, and some numbers. But I try to limit it to a paragraph, two at most. One writer who comes to mind that carried it a little too far was John Norman, the writer of the Gore series. He would write ten pages of exposition about City States and Home Stones and the joys of slavery (which was really bizarre in my mind and the minds of others). Still see it some in more modern works, but at most a page or two. Back to research, I love researching things, especially in my fantasy worlds. But I also feel that some things can be looked up as needed for the story. Saying that, for one series I have planned I have written over a million words of background, and have maps of dozens of individual nations, every continent, and the entire world. That might be taking it a little far, but I know when I am on book ten I probably won’t have to do much more research.

    Doug Dandridge


  4. @Doug: you made a good point about overcoming the reader’s expectations, built by his or her experience of other popular works (Tolkien comes to my mind), but do not sweat it too much. It is impossible to give the reader a perfectly accurate mental image of our universe. Especially that, in my mind, my SF universe is always “a work-in-progress”.

    Yes, heavy spaceships spinning on a dime can be grinding for our physics sensitivities! David Weber does a lot of that exposition, too, but more interesting for the die-hard fans and military buffs. I did a lot of exposition in my first Jules-Verne Saga book, and let out a bit afterwards.

    For your 10-books fantasy world Refuge, that’s exactly why I compare research to the iceberg: you work hard and long at first, but later, you have a lot to draw from your iceberg after!

    Nice page of Sci&Tech links, BTW.


  5. I love the cover for your new move, Le Projet Ithuriel…there’s a great sense of urgency and such a difference between the softness of the young girl and the jagged city outlines—it’s great!
    I read your notes on “research” and had a good smile at that…I do a lot of research even for my fantasy; however, I try to keep in mind that as you say, “research is like an iceberg”. I believe that if you know your stuff, it’ll show, without you cramming it down your readers’ throats 🙂

    ( Good point re the equestrian research…I always vet my “horse” scenes past my much more knowledgable equestrian friends…it has saved me some embarrassment and they always make great suggestions for the sake of realism.)

    Liked by 1 person

  6. @Sandra; thanks for the input!


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