That was a directive, delivered with her usual sense of calm authority, from Rosemarie Santini, the novelist running the West Village fiction-writing workshop I joined seven years ago. I’d wandered into this room of writers with the declaration that I’d like to write a novel--preferably a mystery—set in 16th century England, a time period I was obsessed with.
Rosemarie said that was all fine, as long as I made sure to keep the story moving. “Don’t stop just to share your research,” she instructed. “That’s a mistake some historical novelists make.”
I nodded rapidly. I would, of course, obey.
Fast-forward to this week. The novel I started writing in Rosemarie’s group, The Crown, is now on sale in North America, the United Kingdom, and six other foreign markets. I’d decided to make it not only a mystery but also a thriller, with a Dominican-novice protagonist on a dangerous quest, searching for an object of mystical importance.
Next up: revising my second book in the series, The Chalice. My British editor emailed me notes on the manuscript and after a half-hour blanch, I realized the notes were brilliant and I got to work. One of her suggestions was to trim down here and there: “The wealth of research and authentic detail in the novel is fantastic, but there are some occasions where I think it would pay dividends to be strict about how much research or factual detail to include. “ Later, in the chapter notes, she said things like: “A couple of tiny cuts suggested here, so info dumps don’t hold up the narrative.”
For writing teachers, inserting lumps of “indigestible” information into a book is, well, a crime against God and man. “The info dump is one of the worst sins you can make as a writer,” warned the website Fiction Writers’ Mentor.
Flushed with shame, I dissolvedeach of the marked indigestibles in The Chalice.To relay too much information was terrible indeed. How could I have done this?
“I Like the Information”
I will now sidestep here and talk about my colorist and friend, Sam. He’s the sort of great person you run across when you live in New York City. Sam is a Bukharin Jew who fled Uzbekistan, in Central Asia, when he was a teenager and now lives in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, not far from the beach boardwalk that stretches to Coney Island. He’s got a wife and two children, and six days a week he commutes to Mark Garrison Hair Salon on East 60th Street, a half block from Bloomingdale’s.
I’ve been going to Sam for single-process and highlights for some ten years, and each time I see him we talk about books. He’s a voracious reader, though he admits he wasn’t always that way. “I hated to read, I wouldn’t do it in school for years,” he told me in his gravelly, Russian-accented voice. “Then one day I realized that books could contain facts or stories I find interesting.” Sam is very much an early adopter. He told me about George R.R. Martin ages ago. Nine years ago he was the first to talk to me about a book called The Da Vinci Code. “I like the information,” he said, eyes gleaming.
That’s a core reality I think some of us may forget from time to time. Readers want to be entertained by their thrillers, of course. They hope to tear through a novel that will get them through the flight from Chicago, the daily train commute, that bout of insomnia. I enjoy a juicy thriller’s excited “Now what?” feeling myself, though I crave characters along with the careening pace. I love a fully dimensional protagonist, like Lee Child’s Jack Reacher or Barry Eisler’s John Rain.
And what I really love is a story that reveals fresh and fascinating slices of history. I think the reason that Dan Brown, Katherine Neville and Steve Berry were such game changers is that they found ways to weave history or religious theory or mysticism into a fast-moving narrative. These authors deliverthe goods of compelling information—and throngs of readers love them for it. (It’s not just historical thrillers that win those rabid fans. Medical, techno and military thrillers canhook readers through shrewd use of fascinating facts.)
Now admittedly, I take this adoration of intricate thrillers about as far as it can go. One book I think is absolutely fantastic is Elizabeth Kostova’s bestseller The Historian, a new twist on Dracula. I skimmed the amazon.com users’ comments after finishing it and was stunned that a few of them struggled with the 720-page novel. “Too much of a travelogue,” one reviewer sniffed. “I almost stopped reading when it got to Bulgaria in the 1950s.” I wished at that moment I could grab this curmudgeon and shake him, demanding, “How in the name of God could you not like the Bulgaria chapter?!”
Being aware of my own predilections, I tried very hard not to info-dump my way through The Crown. I’d spent five years researching things like daily life in a Tudor-era priory, the prison conditions in the Tower of London and the legends behind the relics of Saxon King Athelstan. But I did my best to make sure the facts that I found personally interesting did not overwhelm the plot or characters.
Guess what? People who reviewed The Crown --whether it was a trade like “Kirkus,” a newsstand magazine like “O: The Oprah Magazine” or a blogger like Devourer of Books – liked the research. A lot. Practically no one complained that the historical research slowed him or her down. I kept hearing that what people enjoyed about The Crown was it took them somewhere new: a Dominican priory in the midst of Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries. So I kept my promise to Rosemarie after all—the plot moved—but I shared interesting info too.
It feels good to have my own theory proven correct. People want to discovernew things and explore new worlds along with experiencing a thrill ride. Am I saying take off the safeties and info-dump away? Of course not! I recoil when I come across a badly integrated bit of information just like anyone else. But I also get restless if a story lacks dimensions and details, no matter how fast the plot hurtles. Don’t let the fear of committing a writer’s “crime” prevent you from digging up those interesting facts and then finding ways to weave them into the narrative.
The Sams out there will thank you.
Nancy Bilyeau has worked on the staffs of Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and Good Housekeeping. Most recently, she served as deputy editor at InStyle magazine. Her screenplays have placed in several prominent industry competitions. Two scripts reached the semi-finalist round of the Nicholl Fellowships of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. Her screenplay "Loving Marys" reached the finalist stage with Page International Screenwriting Awards and Scriptapalooza. A native of the Midwest, she earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Michigan. The Crown is her first novel.