What makes a well researched book? The writer clearly knows their stuff, right? The facts add colour, mood, depth and quirk to the life of the characters and their world. Even in a fantasy, where the “facts” are complete fiction, the details shine through when an author has researched or extensively created their world.
However, the use of the research and the success of the story is still reliant on the skill of the writer. Well applied research shapes the world and supports the action without drawing attention to itself. Two examples that immediately spring to mind would be the flying knowledge in Code Name Verity which makes the action so believable and the detail of Thisby’s cliff landscape in The Scorpio Races which clearly evokes the rugged unforgiving environment of Puck’s island and layers the mood and tone to the story.
The book I abandoned this summer addressed the role and life of a roman woman, and it was full of facts. To the brim. I believe it was designed to be fictionalised non-fiction in order to make the subject more accessible, with the facts woven into a story; in this case, a year in the life of a wife during Hadrian’s reign.
But it wasn’t really a weave. It was more of a stuffing. As the reader I felt that the turns in the plot were purely there to get us through the long list of information that the writer had assimilated in her research. Fictionalised non-fiction or not, it was still a story and as such it wasn't engaging. There was simply no voice or pace or excitement to it.
I'm sure it was a hard balance to meet in the first place, but what it taught me was that in a story – a good story- the research is there to support, not lead. The plot has to come first. We need up to sign up for the journey before we can enjoy the world a writer takes us too.
And I suppose that is why we send synopses to agents and publishers, not the list of facts we worked with.