Tuesday, 30 June 2009

Research Is Great . . .

.....and the fun part of writing historical fiction - but it's also a minefield of traps for the novice and the unsuspecting. I find it's too easy to become obsessed with the minutae of a place or an event that simply won't progress the story, no matter how hard you try and slip the little details in.
With my current project I am researching the English Civil War, a period I thought I knew something about! It's in fact a place where I could bury myself for years if I'm not careful and come out with few relevant facts I can use. It's all so compelling!
I have had to set myself some rules to follow:
* Understand the customs, clothes and manners of the time - women who wanted a career and studied Homer were frowned on even in the 19th Century.
* Find out what the surroundings look and smell like in your 'era'- and as I'm writing in the mid-sixteen hundreds, most cities were pretty disgusting - but my readers don't want to hear that. They want glamour and romance - not open sewers and rotting animal carcases cluttering the streets.
* Show enough historical detail to flavour the plot, but don't cloud the conflict and characters of the story.
* Have realistic ambitions for my characters - Women born into merchant families did not become duchesses, except as a royal mistress - and the competition for that post was fierce.

Most of the fascinating details that kept me at the library until closing time will bore my readers silly. My most dificult task is to avoid superimposing modern viewpoints on historical events. Child labour wasn't always viewed as abomination, but a means by which families avoided starvation and therefore a practical solution for both employer and family.

How many historical fiction writers have heard from a reader, 'I don't like the hero, he's too chauvenistic/controlling etc.'. When the author has kept him faithfully as a 'man of his time'.
We often have to work outside our own opinions, and yet still make our characters likeable.


N. Gemini Sasson said...

I struggled with that last point in one of my stories. It can indeed be challenging to find a balance between readers' expectations and the reality of the times.

Lisa Logan said...

It's called "Hollywoodizing" the work. People scoff at historical flicks that are less than canon, when in fact they are often done this way not because Hollywood writers are incapable of a Google search, but to appeal to a wider audience base. But where to draw the line so it works for the die-hards and the moderns? A tough prospect.


Glynis said...

I found some interesting facts for my WiP. I wrote notes and spent hours getting lost in the research. I was so excited by all I found, then realised it won't appeal to the reader in the context that I am aiming for. So I have to get tough on myself while researching and grab only what I will use.

I envy you going to a library,(we have none in Cyprus, that I have found). I am so excited, in 3 weeks I am marrying my daughter off in the UK.My treat will be to sit in the local library for a couple of hours, the first time since 2005. Six weeks later I will go back to the UK and marry off my son, guess where you will find me for my treat. I have a list of focused research...mmm I wonder if I will stick to it. LOL