Howie, as we call him, has had a long and enviable writing career that includes scores of novels and comic books in the Star Trek universe, three novels from the original V television series, a bio of baseball legend Mickey Mantle, and Puppy Kisses are Good for the Soul, the true story of Howie’s journey to become a professional dog trainer inspired by his adorable Welsh Corgi known as Mail Order Annie.
Howie became a professional writer at age 19, when he sold a script called “The Pirates of Orion” episode to NBC’s Emmy-winning animated Star Trek television series in 1974—while still a college student at the University of Connecticut.
Today, he’s here to chat about research, credibility, and how to avoid being overzealous when including facts in your fiction. Take it away, Howie!
In fiction, details convey credibility—but can there be too much detail? Personally—as both a reader and writer—I say yes. Not all details are created equal.
Take MOBY DICK (please!). Like most of us, I read “The Great American Novel” in school. Like most of us, I recall little beyond “Call me Ishmael.” What I do remember is more from the abridged but vivid 1956 movie (starring Gregory Peck as Captain Ahab). Like most of us, I never read the book again.
But my friend Ross Lally did. His impression: Herman Melville wrote two books—one about Ahab’s obsessive pursuit of the white whale, the other a 19th-century whaling text—and smooshed them together. So the plot literally sails along, until—bang!—long detours about whales and whaling. Even done seamlessly, would less have been more?
Prepping for my first historical novel, GALLOWAY’S GAMBLE (Five Star Publishing, September 2017), I did 6 months of research into the time period (1845-1875)—collecting waaay more detail than I could (or should) ever use. To whittle down that bounty, I asked 2 questions:
1) What would my characters know?
2) What does a reader need to know?
I think fiction has more impact and intimacy when readers see through the eyes of characters, not authors. It’s not the writer’s job to dazzle with vast amounts of scintillating research—just because you found it doesn’t mean you have to use it! Details should be included if they either orient a reader in time and place; or illuminate characters’ lives by affecting what they do, and how and why they do it.
For instance: I knew very little about 19th century firearms. So I learned a lot—and discarded most of it. The risk of writing “gear porn”—lovingly-excruciating but ultimately incidental minutiae on a given topic—is that readers who already know it don’t need it, and readers who don’t know probably don’t care, especially if the digression bogs down the story. For my story, when it came to guns, I chose a few things that mattered. The typical six-shooter popular in western movies and TV wasn’t even available until after 1873. Civil War-era black-powder revolvers didn’t use the familiar, pre-made metallic-cartridge ammunition, so they were slow and finicky to load. Repeating rifles weren’t widely available until post-Civil War; the single-shot muzzle-loader muskets used by both sides required soldiers to stand up in order to reload—less than ideal in battle. And the gunpowder of the time produced a great deal of smelly smoke.
I used those facts because they shaped the story. My narrator Jamey Galloway has a visceral wariness of firearms, and questions the wisdom of standing up to reload a musket when you’re being shot at by the enemy. His older brother Jake is a marksman adept with weapons. And all that musket fire could turn even a minor skirmish into smoke-blind chaos. The details I chose sculpted the characters, in turn influencing their actions (and attitudes) that forged the story.
So, what’s the lesson for writers? A selective dash of the right details can season your recipe—but a deluge can spoil the broth.