Writing Historical Fiction: How Much Research Is Too Much?
I love historical fiction, and particularly YA historical fiction—it’s so fun to get to immerse myself in a different time and place and learn more about it through a story (my preferred form of learning, of course). That said, I sometimes struggle with reading historical fiction—I’m in it to be immersed in a different time period, sure, but I’m not in it to learn the name and function of every single piece of Victorian clothing, for example. There are too many! What does that have to do with our rogue heroine’s attempt to steal the crown jewels? Sometimes it feels as though authors, having spent months or even years researching their chosen time and place, feel the need to put absolutely every last detail in the story. I understand! You did a lot of work! You want it to be known that you 100% know what you’re talking about! However, there is a point where this begins to damage the story.
So, how much research is too much? The answer, of course, is that no amount of research is too much, but it can get really overwhelming to try and fit everything you now know about, say, 18th-century Japan, or the way that government worked in the early days of the British empire into a novel. Here are a few things to keep in mind when you’re crafting a historical fiction novel!
1.) Pick the BEST way to bring your world to life.
There are so many kind of details you could choose to include—fashion, smell, dialogue, means of travel, tastes, religions, systems of government—the list is endless! The key is to know what kinds of details will serve your story best, and make sure to include those. Be judicious in the details you pick, and know what kind of details to leave out. Sometimes your story just doesn’t need a description of how people traveled by horse and cart, even if you think it’s super cool—it just isn’t relevant! Let relevance be one of your guiding principles.
2.) Some aspects of historical fiction DO require your close attention.
Particularly if you are writing about a time in which a certain group of people was particularly marginalized, or a painful moment in a culture or country’s history. Even if you yourself are a member of that marginalized group or country, make sure you do your due diligence in creating a historical context that accurately depicts what life was like for people. Far more than naming pieces of Victorian clothing, this is the most important thing to remember when writing historical fiction: context, well-researched and presented accurately, is key. Readers are looking for accuracy and nuance, not recycled stereotypes.
3.) Having a difficult time picking and choosing?
Try this—in your first draft, put in absolutely everything you think might be necessary. If you’re worried about it, or think you need it to understand something, put it in. Then, when you go back to revise, cut at least half of that. No questions asked, cut half. Take stock of what’s left and consider whether you really need it—and make someone else who knows nothing about your research read it too! Critique partners can be super useful here, as they can tell you when they feel like info is unnecessary or when they are getting bored by details.
4.) Nothing is ever “wasted time.”
Even if you do hours of research and none of it is included, this research still informs your writing and is integral to your understanding of the history. Don’t let concern about “wasted” research time influence you to include more details than are necessary in your manuscript! All research is good research, but it doesn’t all need to end up in the final product.