Sunday, March 24, 2013

Research, Cheese, and More Recipe Thoughts for Writers...

Photo Credit:  Magnus Manske

We dined at one of the most respected French restaurants in New York City last week. After the main course, a woman pushing a two-tiered cart laden with cheeses arrived.  “I am the commis de trancheur. Which cheeses would you care for?”  

The ‘commis de what?’ We decided not to ask.

“A Brie, a Cheddar and a Blue, thank you.”  My mother-in-law pointed as she spoke.

“We do not have a Brie.  That is a Boursault, produced by Grathdale Valley Farm in Vermont.  It is made from cows milk.  The Guernsey cows are milked only once per day, and fed organic Bahiagrass laced with millet, sorghum, and clover.  They add a touch of oat grain and rye.  It is produced in small batches and procured only by the finest establishments.  The farm is renowned for...” And on it went, for each new cheese we tried to select.   

She lost me at Bahiagrass.  And she never described the taste.

This pronouncement of facts by a waitress with a fancy French label supplanted our status as ‘welcome guests’ or even ‘diners who want cheese.’  We became ‘ignorant peasants in need of education.’

Is this what research-happy authors do to readers sometimes? Condescend, prove ourselves, or slip in one more fact, while ignoring the central plot point?

Just because you’re enjoying a meal, does not mean you want a lecture on the entire recipe.  Research details, like herbs, should be carefully plucked, washed and chopped to support the plot. 

Our cheese waitress left a bad taste in my mouth, like a spoiled sauce.  With a similar feel from other servers, my emotional connection was fractured.  I wouldn’t return, or recommend it.  It was a reminder to me not to treat readers this way.  Like restaurants, authors can depend on ‘word of mouth’ marketing as a key to success. 

How to do it is another question.  How do you keep the details in check?  Have you ever found an author who put you off so much that you wouldn’t read them again, or you actively recommend against them? If so, why?


  1. The endless details in the novels of Don DeLillo and Tom Wolfe put me off. Right now I can't think of an MG or YA writer who wallows in details. Maybe writing for younger readers means you can't do this?

  2. I just had lunch with my book club. I joined several years ago to ensure that I would read some adult novels. I've never made a meeting where the next year's selections are made, but I thought this year's books were mostly a snore fest. (This months book, Perla by Carolina De Robertis, was an exception. I really enjoyed it.)

    Overall, though, there were too many books where it seemed description was more important than story and details more important than character. I am always more interested in what characters think and feel over the color of the curtains or the whine of the flushed toilet. Not that those details can't matter -- they can. But an overabundance of those details make me skip the section.

    Give me story!!!

  3. Such an interesting post, Julie! I agree with J.A.-- Give me story!!! Details are wonderful when they are just right. I love the perfectly telling detail that I really notice and that tells me something important about the story or the character. But if there is an overload of details, I completely glaze over. And I agree with Gale, I rarely (if ever) see this in writing for young readers. Hopefully we can keep it that way! :o)