On Research and being a historical show-off

We’ve all been there, wanting to write a period piece of some sort and deciding to do some preliminary research to make sure the story feels accurate to the time, or at least believably historical.

So let’s say we have an author, call him John Smith, who wants to write a historical fiction novel on pirates. So he dives into nautical books and David Cordingly articles on piracy and reads the wikipedia entry on the golden age of piracy a few billion times, and in due time feels sufficiently knowledgeable in the time period to write a story in it. So he sits down to write his tome and the first words are

“The snow’s bo’sun stood lee side on the aft deck, eyeing the approaching cutter. “I don’t understand,” he said. “They’re running us down on a broad reach.”

The landlubber’s translation of this being: “The ship’s officer stood on the upper deck, eyeing the smaller ship approaching. “I don’t understand, with this wind we should be faster.”

The obvious problem with the bold text is that, while it shows off the research John Smith did, these aren’t exactly common terms. Depending on one’s nautical knowledge, “snow,” “bo’sun,” “lee side,” “aft deck,” “cutter,” and “broad reach” may all end up as dead words and therefore paint a less effective picture than the translated text below it. And while a reader could just pull up a nautical dictionary while he reads, it’s rather annoying to have to do this every fifth word. Then again, the second text doesn’t at all provide a historical immersion to it.

There is, as with a great many things, a happy medium where someone can put their research to good use and not overwhelm a reader with a barrage of unfamiliar terms. Some authors I’ve read seem to disagree, instead unleashing their full array of historical terms and details. These include (but aren’t limited to) Kate Atkinson, Connie Willis, and a whole slew of classic authors, whose works have entered this category through no fault of their own, but simply time rendering some of the language obsolete and necessitating annotations. I find Willis of being particularly guilty of being what I call a historical show off.

Willis’s 2010 double novel, Black Out/All Clear, is a 1,000 page monster where the plot seems to start on page 400. Part of its bloated length comes from its multiple stories in multiple locations and time periods, but a large part of it comes from Willis’s style of including every little detail, down to describing which trains in London’s WW2 Underground go to which stations at what time, when all that’s needed as to say “she boarded the x train from y to z.” It comes off as Willis saying to the reader Hey! Look how much research I did! When the fact is we don’t really care.

History is awesome, and it’s even more awesome when it’s presented in a way that doesn’t feel like study. A good immersion is going to use some of the period-accurate terms and remain diligently true to history while not drawing attention to the fact that a reader is reading about another time. The goal of historical fiction is to make history NOT feel like history, but something that is happening right now. An author who can transport you to a time period without making you feel lost or as if you’re reading a textbook is going to recreate history much better than a historical show off.

edit- As it turns out, I’m not alone. Here is fantasy author Patrick Rothfuss talking about research and how much of it to include in a work.

2 thoughts on “On Research and being a historical show-off

Add yours

  1. This is about that time I spent a paragraph describing the purpose of a keep, isn’t it?

    I think it’s always a difficult balance between trying to make the time period feel genuine, trying not to confuse the reader, and trying to show the reader that you’re really clever and did a lot of research. In the novel I’m writing right now, I put a lot of effort into making sure the vehicles and weapons were accurate in the introductory scene, which is set during the Cold War. The trick is to make sure the details serve the story rather than just being a way to show off.


    1. lol I didn’t even remember that. No, this came up after I decided to do a short story set on a subway train in London in 1901 and the first sentence read something like “The twopenny tube to Queen’s road something something something”

      Liked by 1 person

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