- How do you tear yourself away from the fascinating research and actually start writing?
- What do you keep and what do you leave out?
- How authentic do you need to be?
This is a serious problem for me. I love doing research. One reason I choose to write about a particular period is that it fascinates me. I want to learn more about that time and what it would have been like to live then, and find stories that support my own quest to learn.
Writers find all kinds of ways to avoid writing, and none are more convenient that research. If I am researching, I am engaging in an important part of the writing process. So, I convince myself, as long as I am researching, I am spending my writing time wisely. After all, everything I learn will make my story more authentic, right? Well, not exactly. I mean, yeah, I guess, but the story will not be authentic if it is never written.
There's another problem with research besides taking up all of the time and being addictive: Too much information can be paralyzing. I'm dealing with that now (again). I have so many interesting people and events that I want to include, that I feel absolutely have to be in my story, that I'm having troube writing. Sure, I've written about 40,000 words, but it's a mess. And it's hard to continue because I'm trying to figure out how to make it work with all this great material.
Obviously, something has to be done. I've been through this before with other novels and a couple short stories, but it doesn't make it any easier. I have to decide what is really important.
What do you keep, and what do you leave out?
The easy answer here is, keep only what really applies to the story and leave everything else out.
Only, of course, it's not really that easy. As you research, you make note of all these cool things that can enhance your story, so leaving any of that out will make the story weaker, or at least different than what you had planned. The last part of the previous sentence is actually true, but the first half likely isn't.
Stories are about characters, and your main story is about your main character. So you have to figure out what that character's real story is. Not the plot, but his growth or failure as a person. What is he trying to do? Who gets in his way? How does opposition and conflict affect him?
Once you've answered those questions, use the answers to determine which historical events and people actually contribute to that story. If your story is based around real people, and not fictional people in a past world, you can choose only stuff that was true to what that character faced. But even then, you have to choose. You can't include everything you know, just because it's true, or you'll have an unwieldly, messy story. You have to choose what really applies to the story, the real story about the character.
It's a little tougher if you're writing about fictional characters in a real time and place, because the history itself doesn't create limits to help guide you. But the same basic principle is true. Everything you include in the story needs to help tell the character's story. Adding color is OK, but that color has to mean something to your characters. And too much color might show your dazzling knowledge of the time and place, but it also distracts the readers from what is really important, and that's your character. (By the way, this applies equally well to fictional world building. Show off your world building skills, but make sure the story remains about your characters, not the world you created for them.)
You want to leave enough color to create a vivid impression of the time and place. After all, as I wrote in a previous post, your setting is a character too, and affects your character like any other fellow character would. But that doesn't mean you keep everything in. You want to create an authentic world for your people to move around in, but you don't want the world to overshadow the characters.
How authentic do you need to be?
We've all read historical books about a period we know something about and come away dissatisfied. No, 7th Century medieval knights did not wear 16th Century plate armor. No, Vikings did not storm huge stone castles when they started to invade Europe. Yes, they have earthquakes in California, but no, a strike/slip fault like most of the ones in California does not affect the ground the way a thrust fault does.
If you really care about the history in your story and are not simply creating an imaginary period background for readers who probably won't know the difference anyway (as is common in romances and medieval fantasies), you want to make sure that you are authentic enough that you don't undermine your story by including incorrect facts and unlikely scenarios for the period.
The good news is, really, the less you try to show off your knowledge, the less likely you are to offend the sensibilities of people who know more than you do or, as is very often the case, simply think they do when they are wrong.
You want the flavor of the time, including maybe some key events (as long as they affect your character's story) and a good sense of what people were thinking about in those days. You want enough to make it feel real. But you really don't need that much. Historians always want more, but readers want to feel like they spent time in the period while enjoying the character's story. I like my chili extremely spicy, but that doesn't mean I cook it that way for my family. They love chili, but their expectations are different than those of a chile-head.
Every bit of seasoning you include in your story needs to be authentic and contribute to the enhancement of the period's importance to your story. But a little seasoning goes a long way.
So does that mean all that research time was wasted? Not at all. The better you understand the period, the better you are able to mix the right blend of spices.
So what's a poor writer to do?
When it comes down to it, if you don't want to leave something out in your first draft, then include it. When you take it out later, some of the flavor will remain behind. Just know that your first draft will be especially messy. But they always are.
There will inevitably be places in your final draft where you look back and think that you wish you could have left that really cool scene in there, and somewhere in your mind you might actually believe the book is weaker without it. Chances are, though, that you'll realize that the story is better, flows better, without the intrusion of the coolest stuff you know.
Historical writers have an awful lot of darlings to kill.
The good news is, you know that scene you took out with the really interesting facts about that 3rd Century political assassination? That just might be your next book.