I recently got into a social media conversation with a historical fiction writer who is just starting out. He mentioned that he enjoyed research—enjoyed it so much, in fact, that he was having a hard time knowing when to stop. He asked me how I know when my research is done.
My response was something along the lines of “HA! Never! It’s never done!”
However, the exchange did make me stop and consider. Yes, I work hard to make sure that the real events I write about are portrayed accurately and the fictional bits are plausible. This takes hours upon hours (upon hours…) of research. But, is there a measurable way to explain just how I know when I’ve reached the research’s end?
While I’m sure that writers who’ve been doing this longer than I could list their own methods for assuring that they’ve done due diligence research-wise, I narrowed down my thoughts on the topic to four big questions I ask myself. If your writing involves research, they might be helpful to think about!
What does your audience already know?
I write fiction set during the Second World War. Pretty much everyone I’ve met studied it to some degree at one time or another. This means that my readers have a certain level of basic knowledge. (Some go far beyond basic and can discuss generals and campaigns in much more detail than I can!)
That being said, the first thing I make sure I’ve got squared away are the basics.
What dates am I working with? What significant events were happening on those dates? What was going on right before them? What events would have happened already that my characters would know about?
Numbers are not my friends, and I have a hard time visualizing passage of time when I’m just looking at lists of dates (which can lead to some interesting issues when I’m keeping track of which character is where and when.) To compensate, I like to organize all of the dates into a specialized time-line for the book.
Researching general knowledge information is relatively easy, but that doesn’t make it any less essential. I don’t want a manuscript that my middle-school students could find errors in!
What can your audience (and you) easily find out?
I was explaining the world before online dictionaries to some of my students this week, and was reminded again just how accessible information has become in the last couple of decades. While the internet has just as much trash as treasure floating about in it, the fact remains that there are vast amounts of good research information just a few clicks away.
With that being the case, when I’m writing a new piece I take special care not to miss the proverbial low-hanging fruit. In other words, even if I’m dealing with a historical detail that isn’t common knowledge, I’m going to search the internet and see if I can’t find it.
There’s really no excuse for anachronisms like having a character listening to a song that hasn’t been written yet or driving a car that wasn’t available, when a quick hunt through the internet can tell me exactly when said song or car was in circulation.
If I don’t take the time to check, my readers very well might, and I have yet to meet the historical fiction reader who likes inaccuracies.
How important is this for your story?
Of course, not every bit of history is common knowledge or easily accessible. If it were, historical fiction would be far less interesting! I enjoy mining first-hand accounts, maps, and battle records for more obscure details to weave into my stories. (Or to blog about later if I can’t find a place to fit them in!)
However, sometimes I’ve hit roadblocks.
With my most recent book, Where Shall I Flee?, I had an awful time finding details about German medical care for their soldiers. Most websites that I found only talked about German medicine in the context of concentration camps or other unsavory topics. Most of the available books only focused on Allied care, which had some significant differences.
Now, in some instances when I hit a roadblock like this and am asking myself “when does the research end?” I might just quietly remove the topic from the story and substitute it with something that I can more easily verify. This can be a sanity-saver when the impact of the topic on the overall story is relatively small.
However, since one of my main characters was an American nurse who ended up observing some German medical care first-hand, I couldn’t just let this detail slide by.
On the flip side, I had one character’s backstory involving running track when he was in high school. Then realized that the town in which I’d set his backstory doesn’t have its own high school anymore…but may have in the ’40s. Of course, that didn’t tell me if they’d have had a track team. I contacted the town’s historical society, but didn’t hear back until I’d already decided that whether a character had run track in the past or not didn’t really affect whether he could run away from enemy soldiers. That research rabbit hole wasn’t worth pursuing.
In other words, it’s important to be aware of what details are key to the story, and which details are superfluous. The key details are the ones that may take the most time to research, but they’re the ones that a story needs to include—and to include as accurately as possible—in order to be solid historical fiction.
Is it time to play the “Fiction Card?”
My husband’s a history guy, and appreciates the importance of accuracy. He’s also good at keeping me sane and reminding me periodically, “Remember, this is fiction.”
Sometimes there are details that I just can’t find. I might have a weather report for a month of the war with no day-by-day details. I haven’t walked the land in Italy—I’ve never been out of the Western Hemisphere. I can read all of the books, but I’ve never been a nurse, a medic, or led a patrol.
In the end, when I’ve verified every possible historical detail I can think of, and eliminated any of the ones that I can’t quite verify and aren’t essential to the plot, there comes a time when I have to play “the fiction card.”
I try to save it for things that just pertain to my characters or to my story’s unique plot, and I do still try to make sure that my “fiction card” items are still plausible with everything else I know about the time period.
It’s a balancing act—trying to represent the true stories that people lived through these little fictionalized stories I make up.
I imagine that as long as I continue writing I’ll continue working through the process, trying to get it just right. I also imagine that I’ll continue diving back into the research books throughout it so that I can double check just one more thing…
What about you? Readers, what sorts things tell you if an author did (or didn’t do!) their research? Writers, do you have thoughts on when to let your research end?
It’s always particularly gratifying (and a bit nerve-wracking) when someone who really knows the era reads one of my books. I was so pleased to read a wonderful review of Where Shall I Flee? this past Monday by one of my favorite WWII bloggers, GP Cox. Here’s the link if you’d like to pop over and read what he had to say!