Evidence is always partial. Facts are not truth, though they are part of it. Information is not knowledge. And history is not the past; it is the method we have evolved of organizing our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record.
—Hilary Mantel, Reith Lectures
Part of what makes us human is storytelling. It’s how we pass tales, whether written or oral, through countless generations and how those stories become part of us. These narratives are what allow us to make sense of the world, to know where we have been, and to see where we are going. And the course of human history—with its advancements and setbacks, bitter wars and cultural triumphs—is filled with everything a writer could ever need to create a book. Our history is the ultimate source of artistic inspiration.
It’s no wonder then that many authors feel compelled to write historical fiction, using the medium to either retell an old story or create an entirely new series of characters and incidents and place them in historical context.
But world building—even if that world is our own—is no mean feat. With a seemingly infinite source of facts, statistics, artifacts, and stories, writers have more at their fingertips now than at any other time. Authors have been known to dive into background research and spend years studying politics, economics, science, and sociology across the globe.
Too much of a good thing
With so much information available, it’s easy to fixate on the minutiae and to assume that your readers will be as fascinated by all the details as you are. That leads to stories that go on for endless pages about socioeconomic climate, infrastructure, landscape, agriculture, sociology, culture, politics … and consequently bore their audience numb. This unfortunate practice is called “info dump”—the unnecessary, excessive, and often dry exposition of details and facts. And it’s a sure way to lose your readers.
But it is possible to find balance, to provide enough detail for veracity without succumbing to info dump. Here’s how:
1. Start with your story and your characters.
Readers of historical fiction aren’t buying your book for a history lecture. What they seek is a narrative that entertains, a character to love (or hate), and a journey to follow. Before you start researching the hygiene practices (or lack thereof) of the Middle Ages or the hunting skills of Neanderthals, you should have already created your characters, plot, and structure. The very best fiction is, after all, a story. And when it’s done, your findings and fiction should be so seamlessly melded that the reader can’t tell where one starts and the other finishes.
“From history, I know what [my characters] do, but I can’t with any certainty know what they think or feel,” says Man Booker prize winner Hilary Mantel in the BBC’s Reith Lectures. “In any novel, once it’s finished, you can’t separate fact from fiction—it’s like trying to return mayonnaise to oil and egg yolk.”
2. Research as you go.
One of the biggest dangers of writing historical fiction is to get lost in your source material. Fascinating, exciting, and very nearly endless, research can be its own black hole. Many experienced authors of historical fiction suggest that you don’t do all your fact-finding beforehand but rather when you need to. Your story will tell you when you need to pause and do research as well as what details you need to research, whether it’s everyday habits, working conditions, language, transportation, or even a culture’s particular fashion or food. This will prevent you from having an overload of data at your disposal and will keep you focused only on the necessary details to propel your story forward.
“I know a lot of people who feel that they need to do all the research before they begin to write, but that wouldn’t work for me,” Outlander author Diana Gabaldon writes on her site, DianaGabaldon.com. “Since I never know what’s going to happen, I wouldn’t know where to begin, let alone where to stop. After all, there’s always more you can find out, isn’t there? Instead, I research concurrently, doing the research along with the writing. I find that the research and the writing feed off each other in a useful way: while looking up some bit of information I need for a scene, I almost invariably also find some fascinating thing that stimulates a completely different scene—which in turn will require some further information, that in turn yields further novelties, and so on.”
3. Let your research inspire the act of creation—not direct it.
Sometimes, in their attempts to maintain historical accuracy, authors can find themselves following their research instead of their characters. The moment you catch yourself scouring through your notes to tell you what your character should do or say next, it’s time to take a break. Your research should lend authenticity to your character’s journey rather than define it. It’s one thing to uncover a historical gem and allow it to add verisimilitude to your characters or plots. But the beauty of historical fiction—and what makes it different from the work of academic historians—is that your characters are allowed to grow and act beyond what’s been documented. Above all things, be true to your characters and to the story you want to convey about them.
4. Resist the urge to showboat your knowledge.
Have you ever been at a social function and found yourself caught in a conversation with someone lecturing you about the minute details of a particular subject matter, who simply assumes you know nothing about that subject? Did you enjoy it?
Historical fiction works in much the same way. You may find the results of your research fascinating, but it can derail your narrative as it overflows past “added color” and into the realm of “major digression.” Rather than overwhelming your reader with everything you’ve learned about the origins and evolution of Regency fashion, your quest is to find those few perfect details that paint the most immediate and vivid image in your readers’ minds. By providing just enough detail to ground the reader in the historical period, you leave room for their imaginations to do the heavy lifting.
5. When in doubt, take it out.
It can be paralyzing to self-edit as you write—especially in the process of the first draft of your novel—but if including a particular fact starts to lead you down the path toward an info dump, try leaving it out. If that causes you anxiety, just make a little note in your manuscript, like “[Social consequence of importing silk here?]” and then move on with your story.
What happens? Does it change the narrative arc? Does it make that particular passage flow more easily, or does it hamper your pacing? If you discover later that you should have included some bit of explanation, you can easily go back to your placeholder. But we suspect you’ll find yourself just deleting those internal notes once your story is complete.
Remember that research is never a waste of time, even if you don’t use it (see #9). It’s more important to ensure that the details or research you’re including serve the novel—and your characters in particular—as a whole, rather than being something you force into your story just because it’s historical.
6. Don’t rely only on facts and figures to capture the essence of a particular period.
Inspiration doesn’t need to come only from archival texts or articles. You can capture a lot about a time period through old photos, artwork, handwritten letters, and even television and movies. Try going to a museum or a local historical site. Immersing yourself in the language, social conventions, and environment can contribute authenticity and atmosphere that you won’t necessarily absorb through reading. Being able to transplant your imagination may create some of the most believable and inspiring writing you can imagine … without the dry documented details.
7. Stick to the must-have facts (and then double-check them).
The moment you begin writing historical fiction, you open yourself to factual errors. This is another reason why using just a few key details to imbue your writing with the flavor of history, rather than being a slave to every single fact, can work in your favor.
Hiring a professional editor (some have particular experience in history and identifying anachronisms in writing) can help you ensure that your work is as accurate as possible. If anything might deter you from an info dump, let it be the stern reminder that the more historical detail you include, the more opportunities you have for mistakes. And some readers are more than happy to point them out as publicly as possible—so try to stick to only what’s necessary.
8. Don’t use research as an excuse not to write.
Writers are notorious masters of procrastination, and research is definitely an easily justifiable procrastination. Sometimes it’s easier to dive into research because it feels productive without having to hammer out a few new pages or chapters. And then your guilty conscious might convince you to include all the info you discovered because you invested time into finding it. An easy way to end the vicious cycle? Don’t let your research distract you from writing. Write first; research later!