History That Never Was

Home of Dawn Vogel: Writer, Historian, Geek

Question: How Much Historical Research?

Haphazard stacks of booksI was talking to a newer author of historical fiction recently, and one of the questions they had for me was how much historical research do you need to do before writing historical fiction?

My terribly unhelpful answer is, of course, it varies.

If I’m writing a short story that’s tied to historical events in some way, I definitely want to do a bit of research to make sure I’m not coming completely out of left field to approach the topic in the way I’ve chosen. I want my story to seem at least plausible when considered alongside the actual history. Even when I’m adding zombies to the Civil War or actual witches to the Night Witches of World War II, I want to check that I’ve got some of the basic facts correct. But most of the research I’m going to do for a shorter piece is cursory at best. I’ll look at Wikipedia to start, and then mine through the sources listed on those articles and search to see where I can find information on other websites. I’m fairly unlikely to track down entire books on the topic for something short, however. (And especially since I’ve barely set foot in a library for over a year and a half, since the local libraries are only now reopening to the public.)

If I’m working on something that’s novella or longer length, this is when I’d start looking for some books on the topic as well. For example, when I set out to write¬†Sure Shot in Las Capas, I tracked down a book on gay and lesbian culture in the United States across the twentieth century. In reading that book, I found a major flaw in my initial plot planning, and had to rework a lot of the details so that I could tell the story without veering too far from historical accuracy. I’ve got potential other projects dealing with the Regency era and Girl Guides in World War I (separate projects, I promise), and I’ve dug up books on those topics as well, as I need some grounding in the time periods and also to see if the rough ideas I have will hold up to some scrutiny.

Do you need to do so much research that you could practically write a thesis on the historical period? Probably not, though there are some authors that do. In general, though, I think those are authors who focus more closely on specific periods and write several novels set in those periods, rather than being more of a generalist and skipping all throughout history and geography like I do.

I will note, too, that for as much as you may convince yourself that you need to dig and dig until you can get every single fact exactly right, MOST readers are not going to be able to see or judge the amount of research that you’ve done into a subject. It’s nice to have a few fun things to toss in for the historians among your readers, but if you can’t find a precise detail that you’re certain you need, I’m here to say that you might be able to fudge it a little with just some clever reworking and some close enough research. If you say the train arrived at the station in the morning, few people are going to take you to task for not tracking down the train timetables for the exact year and day of your story to get a more precise arrival time. “In the morning” is close enough!

 


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