Novel research: How much is too much? - Authors A.I.

Alessandra Torre
June 27, 2024

In this recent First Draft Friday podcast episode, I was joined by April White, an author of historical fantasy and contemporary romantic suspense. April shared her love of researching, offering a glimpse into her writing journey and the ways she integrates historical elements into her fiction.

Here are some takeaways from our conversation:

  • Research as a catalyst for plot: April is a pantser. She begins with a general idea, main characters, and five key plot points. Research plays a pivotal role in her writing process, often leading to unexpected plot twists and specific story elements.
  • Diverse genres: While April primarily writes historical fantasy, she emphasized the importance of research even in contemporary romantic suspense. Regardless of the genre, she loves exploring various topics and weaving them into her stories.
  • Time travel and accuracy: She emphasized the need for accuracy, even in fantastical settings, and shared experiences of exploring historical locations like Jack the Ripper’s London.
  • Handling periods with limited documentation: Addressing a reader’s question, April discussed the challenges of writing about periods with scarce documentation. She stressed the importance of mythology, old maps, paintings, and sensitivity to cultural nuances to reconstruct historical scenarios authentically.
  • Balancing information overload: April acknowledged the risk of info dumping on readers. To manage this, she relies on a dedicated section at the end of her books, offering readers a glimpse into the real history behind the fiction.
  • Writing outside default perspectives: April shared her commitment to writing diverse characters, stepping outside her default experiences. Engaging sensitivity readers and actively seeking feedback from those with different perspectives enriches her storytelling, fostering authenticity and avoiding harmful stereotypes.
  • Writing and editing process: April usually spends 6-12 months on a book with approximately one-third of the time spent on research and two-thirds on actual writing. Her editing process involves feedback from her editor who ensures she doesn’t become overly preachy or excessively detailed.
  • Recommended historical fiction author: April recommended Kate Quinn for well-researched historical fiction.
  • First book to read: If you’re interested in exploring April’s work, start with “Marking Time,” the first book in her series about a 17 year old freerunning graffiti artist heroine, who discovers by accident that she comes from a long line of time travelers when she ends up in Jack the Ripper’s London on the night of the double murders.

It was a great discussion — one you won’t want to miss! Click below to watch our 30-minute recording and hear the questions we answered from the live audience. Keep scrolling if you’d prefer to read the transcript.

More info:

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Check out April White’s books on BingeBooks.

Enjoy the show? Check out our upcoming and past First Draft Friday episodes.


Alessandra: Hello everyone, and welcome to First Draft Friday. I am your host with Authors AI. My name is Alessandra Torre, and I am so excited today to have author April White, and we are going to be talking all about research. How much is enough? Methods that you can use for your research and diving into using research when you’re creating your fiction novels. So, welcome. I can see that we already have audience members joining the room. Don’t be shy. Feel free to use the comment section as we go to interact and to ask your questions. But let’s start off, April, by just welcoming you and can you tell the audience a little bit about yourself and your books?

April: Good morning. It’s morning in California still. Thank you so much for having me on the show. April White is my real name, and I write what I want to read. So I write historical fantasy, everything with a romantic element, romantic suspense, historical fiction and historical mystery. So in my work, I basically go down rabbit holes of research that interest me. And from that research, a lot of times come very specific plot points that then inform the rest of my writing. I have a complete series. I have a trilogy of stand-alones, and I have a series — a couple of series in process.

Alessandra: That was really interesting, something you just said. So where does research fit in, in your process? Do you do research first to generate ideas or you have an idea, you do research and then you find plot points for that idea?

April: Yes. So I am definitely a pantser when I write. I know more or less. I know who my characters are and at least my main characters. I know more or less what’s going to happen. I know where they begin and I know where they end. It’s the middle part. I also know what I call the five big bangs. So I used to be a screenwriter and a film producer. And so in film trailers, you always see those five moments that really get the audience in and wow, I want to see this movie. It’s generally in an action movie. I have those in mind as I begin writing. And then I build notebooks and I start coming up with ideas for that, which begins a research path. And I go down a lot of — I mean, I couldn’t write without the Internet. I have to have Google at all times. I donate to Wikipedia because it is my tool. And there have been major plot shifts that happen and additions that happen. And then sometimes the fundamental question of my book, because I feel books in general are just – it’s a question and then what happens is the answer. So that fundamental question is sometimes completely informed by an anomaly that I find. So all the research says this happened, and then you find that one piece that says, no, actually this happened. And now it’s OK, what happened?

Alessandra: 5% of cases this could happen, right? So now the genres that you write in are? Can you name them one more time? I know,

April: There’s a historical component to most of my stuff, but even the contemporary romantic suspense, I still made a point of learning something specific and going down a research path in order to write it, because that’s how I entertain myself. And at the back of every book, I have a section that is probably my favorite part to write, which is this was real.

Alessandra: Yeah, I love that. But one of the genres you write in is historical fantasy, is that correct?

April: Yes.

Alessandra: Is there a large portion of that book that is actually historical? What’s the fantasy element and how does it come in?

April: Well, Time, Fate, Nature, War and Death are immortals and their descendants have skills, so that’s the fantasy side. Everything else is, it’s time travel. So my modern character is a fish out of water, in Jack the Ripper’s London, where she absolutely did not expect to land because she had no idea that she was descended from Time.

Alessandra: A hundred percent. So everything back in Jack Ripper’s time needs to be accurate.

April: Until it doesn’t.

Alessandra: We had a great question from Facebook. I can’t see this user’s name, but they said, how do you handle periods in time where there’s little to no documentation?

April: That is a great question, and I’m actually struggling with that a little bit right now because I have an ancillary character to that series who I’ve decided, because apparently I like challenges, to set his personal story in 1078 in Persia. So he’s actually in the Iranian mountains, I need to step way outside my culture, do all the research, not mess it up, because really that’s at the heart of why it’s so important to me to research so that I don’t get it wrong. There are a million right answers, but there are some very wrong ones too, and that’s my responsibility to be responsible when I’m telling someone else’s history. So in that case, I read everything I can get my hands on and talk to – A lot of times what I find a good source of information is the mythology. So when I read a culture’s mythology from something that doesn’t have, like ancient Greek, for example, or ancient Persian, there’s a ton of mythology and that’s all oral storytelling that has come down through the ages. So from that and from old maps and from paintings, I can sort of create a picture and then I’m just writing characters. I’m not writing the Iranian experience from a thousand years ago, so my characters just have to behave.

Alessandra: Because your characters are in present day.

April: Even when it’s a character from that time, it’s still the human experience. So when I just imbue my character with his or her humanity and do enough research to put them in a situation or a scenario that I have the background for, then I’m telling that character’s story, not the entire world of ancient Islam at the time.

Alessandra: Yeah, I can imagine though. It would be – thank you for that question from Facebook. I can imagine it would be so hard because I think of a normal scene I would write, you know, like two people at lunch having a conversation, and I mean, lunch or a meal is always so easy to fall into because there’s always something that they can be doing. But then I think, oh my gosh, what are people eating in that timeframe? And some of that stuff is something I’ve obviously never tasted, and I don’t know if there’re even restaurants then, and if there was a waiter, or if it was handled in an entirely different way. So I can imagine that the research could really drown out the writing process if you let it.

April: It can and sometimes does. I mean, there’s a reason that my books take a long time to write, but it all goes to setting the scene, to creating the flavor of any scene is, I absolutely look at maps and there’s nothing that infuriates me more than knowing a city and reading a book that gets it wrong or deliberately misnamed places so that they’re not identifiable. Well, it’s clear that that’s Mission Street in Santa Barbara and you named it Missile. Come on! Because that is so infuriating to me, I really make a point of being as accurate as I can. And actually in 2019, I was in London for a book event, and several of my readers got together with me and I took them on a tour of Marylebone to all of the places that I had set one character’s journey, Ringo. He is in Victorian Times, and so all throughout Marylebonee is the world of this book. So I took them to all of these historical places that I had found and created plot, and we probably put seven miles on our feet that day. But it was so much fun, and I’ve decided that in another career I need to be a historical literary tour guide.

Alessandra: I love that idea. And now had you visited those places in person before or was that the first time?

April: The day before. I had done all of my research online.

Alessandra: Okay. And was the online pretty accurate? There are things that you noticed that…?

April: Yeah. I’m not kidding about, I couldn’t do this without Google. There’s a map that’s being maintained in Edinburgh, like the Library of Edinburgh University, and that has all of Victorian UK. Any of the Victorian maps from the UK are in this, and you can superimpose the modern maps onto it. I think I’ve linked it somewhere at the back of one of my books because it’s so cool just to be able to say, this actually existed. There still is the building of a ragged school in Marylebone, but it’s down this little tiny alley that shows up as a street, but it is literally two shoulders wide. You go down this alley and there you can see the ragged and industrial school emblazoned on the side of the building. I’m sure it’s somebody’s cool loft. Very expensive loft now.

Alessandra: Very expensive.

April: Yeah.

Alessandra: So when you said it takes a long time to write your books, how long does it take you on typically? And how much of that is research versus writing?

April: The fastest book to write was three months long, but that was an outlier. Typically I would say it’s about a third research and two thirds writing, and they’re usually six months to a year to write.

Alessandra: Okay. So three months, two to three months, it can take you to research.

April: And it’s just, you know, spotty throughout. I like the fantasy of going to write on a desert island wouldn’t work for me because I need – as I’m writing, where is the map for that and what do they eat there? You know, all of those questions. But even the contemporaries, sorry that my dog has all of the dog toys over here to keep him from getting in my way and now he says they’re empty.

Alessandra: I’m bored, mom, what else can I do?

April: Exactly. Even the contemporaries, I was doing a lot of research into cybersecurity and into data mining and data scraping, and all of these things that I had heard but hadn’t really dug into, and the digging into them has made me incredibly wary of the internet. I feel like you know what it is and you know why you’re there and it’s a tradeoff. I just surrender to the fact that I’m here and I need this as a tool and someone – like my value as a human being is with my dollars, so, you know, it’s a data scraping thing. And so, I didn’t even have to do – it wasn’t even just the historical stuff that was fascinating to me. Learning anything and weaving it into a mystery or a plot, is and it’s what entertains me in writing, and it’s also what entertains me in reading.

Alessandra: On that thread, Michael from YouTube said what about information overload where there is too much information? And I do see this sometimes when I read authors, I think they learn so much that they also feel as if they have to share everything that they know and it can really bog down. I don’t know if that’s exactly what Michael was asking, but what do you do when you just have so much information? Is that ever an issue?

April: That’s a really good question. And two things. One, I have a section at the back of every book that is; this was the real history, so that’s a place to put it all. And second, I have a very good editor and she will tell me when I’m being too preachy. And that’s what she calls it. She calls it like you’re info dumping, you need to stop. And so unless it has a direct relationship to the plot and can be folded in. My husband is a filmmaker and he calls it lawn furniture. When you’re just putting it out there and it’s something that you trip over, then get rid of it because it’s just too much lawn furniture.

Alessandra: I love that. And I love the fact that you give yourself the back of the book, so that also I would think would be so interesting. I really want to share it, but it doesn’t have a purpose in that scene and it doesn’t make sense to write a scene about it. That would be my little consolation prize. Oh, this can go in the back. And for readers who are really interested in that, then they can dive in the back. So, how long is your back of book section?

April: It’s generally not more than a couple of pages. And what never makes it into the back of the book, but is as valuable and necessary to research is when I write, which I actively try to do when I write outside of my default, so I call it being a white straight female in America. That’s my default. I have lived that experience, but I have — ever since my first book, my same editor who is a rock star, she read it and she’s like, “It’s great. I love it. I love the dialogue, I love the plot. And yes, I realize that you said it in Victorian England, but did you realize that there was no color in it?” It was, oh wow, that was a completely unconscious default mistake on my part because that’s not what I like to read. That’s not what the way the light of the world looks. Again, I feel it’s my responsibility that if I want to reach readers and appeal to readers, I need to write the world the way it actually looks. And Victorian London was full of color. It was vibrant with color, with people of every nationality because the age of exploration had brought everybody in and everything contemporary, obviously the same.

So I’m not just being safe and writing, you know, white, straight female main characters. I am actively pushing myself to write outside that default. And there’s a ton of research that has to be done, again, so that I’m not doing harm, so I’m not perpetuating any stereotype, so I’m creating a real person inside this character. And so that it feels like this character’s experience is a real person’s experience. I’m not writing an entire people’s lives; that’s not my job, and certainly not with within the scope of what I can do. So if I’m writing — I had a black British, Nigerian, Jamaican character in one of my contemporary romantic suspenses. And so, I utilized sensitivity readers tremendously and several of them and got such interesting notes that you don’t know what you don’t know. If you don’t think about it, it’s still going to show up because it’s your default. And one of those notes was about just a very specific phrase. When he was stressed. And I was trying to show his tension rather than tell his tension because it’s from her perspective where he’s gripping the steering wheel and his knuckles went white. And my friend was, no, that doesn’t happen, but it wouldn’t have even occurred to me.

Alessandra: It’s almost a cliche. I mean, it’s a phrase. I mean, it’s such a common phrase that you’re right.

April: So even the little things that make a character, or you’re trying to show someone’s mood or mindset or story, and it’s, it’s important to have people in your life, as a writer, who will tell you what you’re doing right and what you’re not getting right. And what is perpetuating an idea that is not productive or could be harmful and is just wrong. And so, I have those people that I trust and I’ve been very fortunate in, I just contributed to an LGBTQ anthology and my character is trans in Victorian London. And that was – I was pushing myself and she turned out beautifully. And I fully credit the things that I learned talking to my trans friends, who also read the story and were really like, this, and absolutely not. And it’s so valuable and I cannot stress highly enough how much I have grown as a human being by pushing myself outside my default, but also as an author. And consequently, my audience has grown too, because I am stretching into characters that other people could see themselves.

Alessandra: So what do you do when you write though, in problematic times? Maybe you don’t write books in those times, but if you are writing in a period where racism was blatant, you know, or you have a character that would’ve had a certain mindset towards, either a certain race or a certain orientation; how do you handle that in a way that is appropriate?

April: It’s an excellent question and it’s completely fraught as we all know. There are a couple of different answers – and the toys are getting dropped at my feet again, sorry. For me, when I really step outside of my default with a main character, those stories are independently published. So, importantly for me, I recognize that the gatekeepers in publishing are still gatekeeping on how many authors of color there are, how many gay authors there are who are publishing in any particular cycle and I won’t be part of that. So I feel like by independently publishing those books, or with the books that I’m going to publish independently, really pushing myself; then I’m not taking space away from a traditionally published author of color or LGBTQ or any marginalized community. So, I’m trying to be really responsible and respectful there. I have a series that is begun and I’m formulating books two and three with a black character in Baltimore now, a black American character, which I’m already, that’s risky, riskier for me to write.

Alessandra: What timeframe?

April: Well, it’s modern, but she happens to have, as is discovered through book one, she has actually lived through the last 150 years.

Alessandra: Oh, she has? OK, cool.

April: So going back into time into her other stories is going to be tricky. I’m working with a co-writer on those and my editor is incredibly mindful. Again…

Alessandra: Like you said, just having the right team and having the right eyes. And I’m also curious, moving away from that topic, but also in the line of having readers, do you have a network of… do you ever have anyone read it who is just an expert in that timeframe or who can look at that, not just for of how you’re representing the characters, but also just the details, the historic details?

April: I haven’t gone there because I’ve been pretty confident in my own research with that research, and I’m not writing historical fiction. I’m not writing academic fiction. If I were doing that, absolutely I would. I have had readers come back to me early on and say, oh, and by the way, tomatoes weren’t introduced in Europe in 1428. I was, OK, so on my next draft …

Alessandra: Well, how do you know that? That’s hard. I mean, it would be hard to discover that when you’re doing research.

April: Right. But another benefit of having control of my documents on the independent side is I can go in and change it.

Alessandra: I love that. From the audience on YouTube, Kit said, any recommendations for well-researched historical fiction.

April: Yeah. I’ve tended to read primarily women in the last couple of years. I actually just mentioned that out loud to a friend of mine and she realized that she has too. I’m gravitating more toward female authors, and the historical ones that I have loved recently have been from Kate Quinn. Her history is spot on. She actually just, her last book was about a sniper in Russia, I think it’s called Diamond Eye. And I had actually done research on her on that particular sniper for a short story that I wrote. And so I was, yeah, actually she got it right! And so, that was really interesting to already know that topic. I don’t know who else, off the top of my head, if I stared at my bookcases, I could tell you, but Kate Quinn for sure.

Alessandra: Yeah. That’s fantastic. Another question that I had was – oh my gosh, as I started to ask it… Oh, I know what it was. Let’s say you’re describing a scene and you know that this dress is called a, I don’t know, you know the terminology, is there ever an issue where you’re using terminology, but you’re aware that the terminology to an average reader who isn’t familiar with that time period isn’t going to necessarily know what you’re referring to? So when that comes, do you just say cane instead of calling the cane, whatever it’s actually called in that timeframe? Do you ever dumb down the references so you don’t have to make it apparently obvious what those things are? Do you have any tricks around that?

April: I do in that I don’t have to dumb it down. I do have a trick, which is that I have a time-traveling character. She’s modern with modern sensibilities and they’re..

Alessandra: Oh, so she’s like the novice, I mean…

April: Therefore, if he or whoever they say in the parlance of the time, this thing, and she looks at it, it translates through her perspective.

Alessandra: Oh, I love that. And that also then allows you to explain things to that character or that character to not be…

April: Perfect without creating…

Alessandra: Yeah. I love that. I love that. Okay, so we have a little under five minutes left, if you have any final questions for April, now is the time. April, you said you read everything you can on a certain area before you – are you reading historical fiction or by other authors you’re reading nonfiction books, like lifestyles of the 1800s? Or what sort of things are you reading when you… if I wanted to write a book set in, I don’t know, 1400s, I don’t know, somewhere in the world, where would I even start?

April: So Wikipedia is the first place that I start and then I go into the sources, so they always list sources. Wikipedia used to have a really bad rap, but now I’ve learned that in the last decade there are entire college courses in which the final paper or final work product is the Wikipedia article on this thing, which has to be written in a very specific way. You can’t write from a perspective, you have to write from the omniscient perspective and you have to cite every source. So it’s a really good starting place, and then that sends me down a rabbit hole of whatever the source material is. There are blog posts that can be really fantastic. Something as simple as Henry VIII’s Wine Cellar, which still exists. It was part of the original Whitehall Palace and it’s it and the Banqueting Hall are the only two remnants in a building that exist in London, because the rest of it was destroyed in a fire.

And I was always fascinated by this idea of this massive palace that used to belong to Cardinal Wolsey, right next to Parliament, that I’ve never seen any hint of. But this wine cellar that you can’t get access to unless you know somebody inside the Department of Defense. There are photos and there are photos in a blog or, and then I think there was an article written for something. Someone knew a guy and got to go in. So of course I had to set a scene there because who doesn’t set a scene in a 16th-century wine cellar that still exists under the city streets in London. There are a lot of places. I tend not to read historical fiction because unless they have that chapter at the back that tells me what’s real, I can’t base my stuff on that.

Alessandra: Yeah. And you don’t know the research that they’ve done. I think this will be our last question. Do you ever find yourself going so deep down one of those research rabbit holes, it’s hard to get back to the surface again?

April: Yes. And you just sort of drag yourself back up because it’s really fun and I can spend three days down that hole, and then if I’m going to do that, I better make a really big scene about it.

Alessandra: I love that. I think my biggest fear, especially if it is suspense or if there is something is, at some point, you know, when I’m 75% into the book, discovering that tomatoes didn’t exist but my tomato was the murder weapon or it was the one thing that was holding the entire book together and I’m, oh my gosh, I have to change everything. I said that was the last question. We have time for one more. Have you always written historical romantic suspense or did you start somewhere else?

April: I started with what I thought was YA, turns out I write what I want to read and 75% of my readers are women and 10% are retired men randomly. And just because I have a 17-year-old freerunning graffiti artist heroine, who discovers by accident that she comes from a long line of time travelers when she ends up in Jack the Ripper’s London on the night of the double murders, and I can say that without taking a breath. That was the first series and it’s a complete series and it remains the fun. You know, those are the fun books for me. Contemporary Romantic Suspense was a stretch and also fun to recognize that I could do it, that I could write in contemporary. I started with a PI because I used to be a PI and I had stopped reading anything around PIs because I felt they get it wrong. But you know, and so write my own character and base her on the stuff that I used to do.

Alessandra: Oh my gosh, I’m so glad I discovered you’re a PI at the very end because I would’ve just dominated the question with PI-related questions, so I’m going to bite my tongue, but I just want to say, coming from Facebook, this has been so helpful, particularly on how important research is, so thank you so much. And Michael, thank you for joining us. He said, “as a historical fiction author myself, I really appreciate everything you said today. Thank you.” Thank you so much to everyone who joined us live. April, if they are interested in reading one of your books, where would you suggest they start?

April: I would say go to Marking Time first, that’s book one. You can find me on April White Books. I also have a private Facebook reader group called Kick-ass Heroines because, you know, my heroines don’t go back into the building and they learned that lesson the first time. So anyway,

Alessandra:  Thank you so much, April. Thank you to everyone who joined us. We’ll see you all in two weeks.

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