How Much Research is Too Much?
Research is the lifeblood of the non-fiction books and magazine articles I write about horse racing, but it’s also an important tool for fiction authors. Readers are more knowledgeable than ever before, and what they don’t know they can find out in a few seconds on the Internet. And when readers discover a mistake, they’re almost never shy about letting you know.
An astute reader of my latest book, Noor: A Champion Thoroughbred’s Unlikely Journey from California to Kentucky, emailed to let me know that she liked the book. A longtime racing fan, she also pointed out a few factual errors for which there’s no good explanation. I know that Middleground defeated Hill Prince in the 1950 Kentucky Derby, for example, but inexplicably I referred to Hill Prince as a Derby winner.
It was humbling—and incredibly annoying—to realize that mistakes made it unscathed through all the revising, editing, and proofreading that go into writing a book, but I appreciated the email because the mistakes can be corrected in a second printing. An unexpected bonus: I may have found a new expert proofreader for my next book!
Good researching is a skill, but it’s also an art. I’m fortunate to live a few miles from the Keeneland Library located at the historic race track of the same name outside Lexington, Kentucky. Combine a library staff that is both expert and incredibly helpful with one of the best repositories of racing history anywhere, and it’s a writer’s dream. One of the great joys of research is to make connections that no one ever has put together before, and that’s what I try and do in my books. As with most things, however, you reach a point of diminishing returns when you’re doing research. The trick is realizing when enough is enough.
But how do you know when it’s time to quit, when you’ve reached that point where there’s a danger that the forest of Post-It Notes and stacks of paper will take over the project? For me, that point arrives when I begin to include factoids that are interesting and show I did my homework, but don’t really help move the story along. Research is an important part of writing, but it’s only a tool, not an end in itself.