The Research Rabbit Hole, with author Susanne Dunlap

It goes without saying that research is fundamental to writing a historical novel. Once you step out of the realm of lived experience, research is how you discover all the important facts and details that make your story come to life. 

But writer beware: Research is fun. Research is beguiling. Research is a beautiful, fascinating, trap. More to the point, 99% of your research is ultimately much more interesting to you than it will be to your reader.  

It’s an understandable temptation to show off everything you’ve learned by loading up the text with information that really isn’t necessary. Confession: I find my own first drafts alternate between passages of dense historical background that don’t enhance the story and gaping holes where I only realized I needed to know something once I’d embarked on writing. Thank the goddesses for editing!

The point is, it’s all part of the process. The trick lies in figuring out what to include and what to leave out. I wish I could give you a simple formula to follow, but I can’t. Nonetheless here are a couple of tips that can help you get the just the right balance between what you know and what you write:

  1. Every time you add a historical detail, ask yourself why it’s there. If the answer is because it’s vital to the story, then it stays. E.g. your character’s dentures were made of wood so it was difficult for him to chew meat and he starved to death—keep that factoid in. If you thought it was fascinating that dentures were made of wood at the time, but none of your characters wear dentures, it gets the axe. Unless, of course, your main character is a dentist.
  • Whenever you’re tempted to tell your reader about some historically interesting aspect of your story, show them instead. An example: Instead of, “The roads were bad and carriages had no springs, so the journey from Vienna to Paris took three weeks.” you could write, “She feared her teeth would have all fallen out by the time she arrived in Paris after three weeks jolting over rutted roads.”

The important thing to remember is that you’re writing fiction first and foremost. Historical is simply the modifier. Research is important, but ultimately, your story has to keep your readers turning the pages and hungry for more.

Susanne Dunlap is the critically acclaimed author of seven historical novels for adults and children. She’ll be teaching some key historical fiction tips and techniques on November 16, in her morning workshop at WIP. Register Here

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