Research is an essential part of writing. Your research contributes to the overall feel of the book, and it’s important to make sure your facts and information are up to date. It’s very easy for readers to get distracted from the plot if they notice something that’s incorrect. However, just because you research a lot of information doesn’t mean it all has to go in your book; overloading it with unnecessary facts or information can also be distracting. Maggie Toussaint talks about how important it is to research before you start writing, but also to keep some of the irrelevant details left out.
Do the Research Right, but Don’t Write All the Research
By Maggie Toussaint
Did you know loggerhead turtles return to the same beach for nesting? They are out there swimming around in the great big ocean, and yet they return to the exact beach (or very close) to lay their eggs. Scientists proved this by tracking nesting turtles with radio transmitters.
Not only that, but turtles spend most of their life submerged but must surface every four to five minutes to breathe air. They can sleep underwater without drowning because their level of activity is less.
More fun facts: Male sea turtles almost never leave the water while females nest every two to three years on beaches. That nesting—depositing about 100 golf ball sized eggs in a pit the turtle digs with her flippers and then covers up—takes about three hours.
Fascinating, right? The babies hatch at night two months later, crawl to the water, and swim away, lickety-split. These turtles don’t reach sexual maturity until somewhere around 12-30 years, when their outer shell grows larger than 90 cm.
Further, the gender of the hatching turtles is determined by the incubation temperature. Hot temps and you get gals, cooler temps and you get guys.
Your eyes may be crossing with turtle facts by now, but my eyes are alight with enthusiasm, even months after I’ve turned in my Turtle Tribbles novella. I knew this would happen when I began researching, so I created a folder of all the fun facts about these endangered turtles. I could go on and on about this topic, but I’ll spare you the biology lesson.
The reason I researched turtles is because down here on the Georgia Coast, college interns get assigned various barrier islands to monitor turtle nests. The plan is to get a better idea of the population and to do our part in protecting the nests so this species doesn’t go extinct.
Anyway, there’s also a serious problem of turtle eggs getting poached, which is a federal crime. A man who turned right around and poached turtle eggs right after getting out of federal prison for the crime sparked my interest in writing a murder mystery around this occurrence.
With a fat folder of turtle facts in hand, I was ready to write my novella. The first draft of chapter one drowned in details. I wanted to use all the cool facts I’d unearthed because they were so interesting.
But … did they advance the plot?
Sadly, the answer wasn’t to my liking. The loggerhead’s life cycle information is the reason there’s a Turtle Girl, but 90 cool facts about turtles don’t belong in a mystery about the death of a Turtle Girl.
So, how could I work in some of this information without the story feeling like science class? I open the story with the Turtle Girl visiting my newspaper editor sleuth, Lindsey McKay, in her office because turtle eggs are being poached. The editor is no biologist, so the Turtle Girl has to explain why people would steal turtle eggs.
The editor feels around the edges of what’s being said, realizing that the chance of catching a poacher on an island are slim in an area with lots of speedboats, decides to use the opportunity to run a feature about the turtles due to their endangered status.
Each time Lindsey and the Turtle Girl meet, a few more turtle facts work their way into the story. I also kept the tone light, as is shown in this brief snip from the story:
“Don’t take this the wrong way, but could you have missed the hatch?” Lindsey said.
“Nope. I hit the beach first thing every morning and monitor the nests. If turtle eggs hatched, I would see the signs. Eggshells would be cracked and left behind. The sand from the nest to the sea would be full of turtle tracks. The nests would look disturbed. I didn’t see any of that at those locations. It’s like the eggs got beamed into outer space.”
As you can see from the tone of that dialogue, I kept the facts light, used nonscientific words, and even added in an element of humor. By not flooding the story with facts, the reader is drawn into the story and cares about the turtles because the Turtle Girl cares about them. And when the Turtle Girl is found dead on the beach, we care a lot about what happened to her.
Making the Turtle Girl passionate about her amphibian charges upped the stakes for readers caring about why she was murdered.
Bottom line? A little research goes a long way. Do the research, but keep the bulk of it out of your story.
Southern author Maggie Toussaint writes mystery, suspense, and dystopian fiction. Her work won the Silver Falchion Award for best mystery, the Readers’ Choice Award, and the EPIC Award. She’s published fifteen novels as well as several short stories and novellas, including the upcoming Happy Homicides 3. The next book in her paranormal mystery series, Doggone It, releases October 2016. Maggie serves on the board for Southeast Mystery Writers of America and Low Country Sisters in Crime. Visit her at www.maggietoussaint.com.
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