Friday, 14 December 2012

Researching Historical Fiction

As well as failing to regularly update my blog, on account of holidays and the need to read the entirity of Les Mis in the two weeks before the movie comes out, I have been writing fanfiction of sorts about Cicero and Enjolras solving crime. Unexpectedly – yes, I didn’t see this coming – this has led me into the realm of historical research. I was intending for it to be a small writing project that I didn’t have to think about seriously, but of course, things never stay that way. I spent several hours the other day reading up in great detail on Cicero, to try and gauge how he would respond to being called a patrician. My several hours of reading the works of Cicero, and then any other writings I could get my hands on on the internet about Cicero left me with nothing but a throw-away line that will be read in under a second. But it did raise the question – how much research is too much?

I’m sure this is a problem that plagues anyone who tries to write historical fiction, and much more so those who try to write legitimate fiction that some bizarre sort of fanfiction mash-up, but nonetheless, it’s a problem. Is it really worth three hours of reading to get one line that doesn’t reveal anything at all? On the one hand, I did learn that Cicero was horrible arrogant, but also very witty, and that I’ll have to study Oscar Wilde before I can write proper Cicero fanfiction. It definitely helped me to get my head around his personality, as well as the setting.

On the other hand, it means that rather than write several pages – or at the very least one page – in a sitting, I’ve been moving at about a sentence a day. Even though I’m writing what I plan to be a short story, this could take me a long, long time.

In search of answers, I headed off into the blogosphere. I found advice ranging from “do the most research you possibly can” to “find a happy medium” to “you can write your story and then do the research”. The first raises the obvious problem that if you do the most research you possibly can, you will wind up a very old academic expert, with no historical fiction to your name. On the other hand, if you write before you research, your story might inadvertently hinge on something that couldn’t possibly have actually occurred, and the whole thing with fall to pieces. And as for finding the happy medium – it’s a great piece of advice, but where? and how? Beyond suggesting that you have to get your head around vagaries of speech and dress, nobody seems to have any idea.

I don’t have a solution to this problem yet, so I’m mostly writing this post in the hope that someone will comment with a magical answer. I don’t think there is one, but I like to pretend there might be. Does anyone have an answer? Have do you find the balance between research and writing?


  1. Sorry. No magical answer.

    I don't write historical fiction. The thing that scares me away is that I wouldn't want to screw something major up. So I'll just live in my contemporary world. (Although I could probably screw something up there too.)

    I write my story before doing the research. For my NaNo project that's what I did. But I need to talk to people about my subject, and I didn't have the necessary questions before I wrote the story. But now I do.

    But for historical fiction. I'd think you'd need to start your research first. There's too many nuances you'd want to get right. Settings. Voice. It would be hard to change that after you've written it all.

    Then if you need to do additional research after you wrote the story, to answer that one question, then you do it. And don't have to go back and make major changes.

    1. Thanks for trying to find a magical answer. =) Now I just need to train myself not to do the additional research until *after* I've finished writing.

  2. When I still wrote historical fiction, I usually researched until I got the big picture and general atmosphere in my mind. I watched films about the period, and if I came across a detail that I didn't know about, I found out about it while writing the scene.

    The thing was that I was very familiar with the eras I was writing about -- WWI, interwar period, WWII and 1950's -- because I used to study history very enthusiastically. The only facts I needed to find out were little details that I wasn't familiar with. That way I already had the balance.

    As it is with worldbuilding for fictional worlds, it's always better to know more than what you need.

    1. Your solution sounds about the same as mine. Finding little details isn't as easy as it sounds, though... =)