Can an Author Do Too Much Research?

Recently, I was discussing the importance of historical accuracy in fiction with a group of fellow authors. While a few fell on the side of insisting on 100% accuracy and one saying it didn’t matter much at all, most were somewhere in the middle.

I think it’s important to get as many of the details right as you can, but to avoid bogging down your story with too many unnecessary ones. A little historical detail adds flavor to the story, especially for those who like the history as well as the romance. Too much detail makes the story dry and flavorless. I quit reading one historical romance 90% of the way through because the author spent page after page detailing the wedding preparations of the time period. She had clearly done her research, but it ruined an otherwise good story.

In the end, no author is likely to get the details 100% right 100% of the time. Besides, history is one of those areas where interpretations vary widely. In the end, you just have to do your best, forgive yourself for a few errors and hope your story is good enough to appeal to readers despite them.

I thought I’d share how I go about my research. While this doesn’t necessarily fit everyone’s style, it works for me and maybe it will help others find what works for them.

Step 1 – Read, read, read. While most romance authors spend the bulk of their time reading fiction, and probably limit it to romantic fiction at that, I spend just as much time reading history books. Not only do I become more knowledgeable about the time period, I get a lot of plot ideas from these books. At this moment, I’m only a third of the way through Harlow Giles Unger’s biography of John Hancock and I already have two more stories plotted out.

Step 2 – Write. At this stage, I’ll have a plot that I want to play with and some idea of what happens in the story. I will spend a day or two writing out what I call a "sketch" of 10,000 – 20,000 words. This sketch forms the basis for a novel of 90,000 – 100,000 words.

The sketch starts with some basics such as a thorough description of the characters, both physical and motivational. Then, I go on to summarize chapter by chapter, sometimes dipping in as far as writing actual dialogue and sometimes just skimming the surface so I can get the basic idea down and flesh it out later. Often, I write in half sentences with atrocious punctuation as I’m only writing for myself at this stage. Most likely, it would look like gibberish to someone else.

I don’t worry much about getting the facts right at this point. For example, I’m working on a book that is at this stage right now. I have the entire sketch written, but I’m not quite sure if I have the time period right or the details. As usual, my novel is set in late 18th Century America. The backdrop for the plot involves the smuggling of goods during prior to the Revolution. I know it has to be set sometime between about 1764 and 1774, and I’m also thinking Rhode Island. However, as I do more research, I will settle on the dates and locations that best fit the story line.

Step 3 – Research. Now, I’m looking at the big picture research and reading more history books to learn more about the actual details that might play into the story. Even though I got two more plot ideas from the John Hancock biography, I originally started reading it so I could learn more about how the colonials dealt with the boycott of British goods as it plays into the plot of the story I just mentioned. I have another book about smuggling in pre-revolutionary America that I will be reading next.

I see this as the most dangerous stage as it’s easy for me to get so bogged down in the research that my manuscript never gains any traction. I gave myself until the end of August to indulge in research before getting serious about writing.

Step 4 – Write. Once I have a better handle on the details, chances are good some of the plot in my sketch will change. I’ll make a few quick changes, but not obsess about it too much before I start fleshing the sketch out into a full blown manuscript.

I don’t do too much research at this stage unless it's something like a quick check of to see if a word or phrase I want to use was around at the time or a check of Wikipedia or some other quick resource to verify a date.

Step 5 – Fact check. This is the final stage, and while it sounds easy it’s probably the longest stage. Every time I go through a manuscript to get it ready for the publisher, I’ll spot little details that I want to check and recheck. For example, in the opening chapter of Le Chevalier (download it here), le Chevalier de Mont Trignon and the Marquis de Lafayette are at a ball in Philadelphia. While Mont Trignon is a fictional character, the Marquis is not. I must have checked and rechecked the dates of his arrival in Philadelphia and the details leading up to his enlistment a dozen times before I was satisfied.

In the end, I do a lot of research for my novels, but I try not to let it slow me down. Even if the genre is not historical, I’m sure all authors do at least some research. I’d be curious to hear how others go about making sure they get the details right.


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