If you’re writing Historical Fiction you’re most likely in love with the past. While writers adore research and taking notes, diving into costume templates and other delights, it’s important to remember that unless you’re writing a text book there’s Story and there’s History. Don’t confuse the two.
Historical facts are like backstory. Their there to enhance, not overwhelm. A delicate hand is needed to spice up stories if we’re going to transport readers to the world we are recreating. It’s rich details, the little bit of this, and little bit of that we can use to enliven stories without dumping a lot of unnecessary, dry facts on top of readers who will turn away.
Because history to me is so enjoyable, when I approach a project in the early stages, I give myself a time limit to do research. It helps keep me centered on story, and prevents a trip far off field that will prevent me from actually writing the story and over-researching. In fact, I under-research. In the beginning. When I get into the draft, I leave blanks if I haven’t read deeply enough and go back after my first draft is done to read more on the topic so I can flesh out the scene first. Always remember, story first. I typically limit my initial research to two weeks to a month, depending on scope and familiarity with subject matter. I watch documentaries, read primary and secondary sources and research costumes. I do not research technical aspects yet, such as weaponry and language. Once I start writing the draft, I review notes and let the story guide me. If something needs more research, I’ll note and go back. The old Stephen King Cleveland trick. These things are usually things I want also to see in person. I’ll watch a YouTube video first, then schedule an appointment with a local expert. That’s it.
It’s crucial not to get overwhelmed with details. If you’ve loaded your draft with too much detail or find your characters speechifying-teaching history-you’ve gone too far. History like backstory is a spice. While I want readers who enjoy that time period to be charmed and delighted, I know I’ve done my job when I’ve transported a reader who knew nothing about the era. Those are the ones you should be aiming at. Don’t be afraid to use foreign words with elan, these are the things that bring your world to life.
If you don’t know how to do it, try something like, “I wrapped the rich uchikake around my shoulders for warmth. It was always welcome to have padded kimono on a night like this.” You’ve defined the item once, now be free to use the word again without having to define and the effect is seamless. The reader gets it.
How do you like to research? Do you dive in or do you do just enough to sprinkle the story?