14 January 2007

When good research gets in the way of a great story

Historical fiction writers, more than authors in other genres, must be thorough in our research. Our readers want more than just a great story. We must convey accurate details of the period or risk losing reader interest. The thirteenth-century hero who refers to a peregrine as a hawk rather than a falcon isn’t absurd; it’s the author who didn’t know the difference. Military enthusiasts will fire off annoyed letters asking how an antebellum heroine could use a Winchester rifle, when the first models weren’t available until 1866. However, even the most methodical writer cannot avoid some pitfalls in research.

So, you’ve spent months amassing facts, defined your character list, and written and polished many drafts of the next great American novel. Then out of nowhere, new scientific findings torpedo your research with the potential to derail your story. So that ancient cataclysm, which destroyed the hero’s village and prompted his epic journey, happened three hundred years before the setting in your story.

What’s an author to do?

How do you handle it when new information suggests you must change your storyline?
If you acknowledge it, is an author’s footnoting enough? Or do you alter your work completely?

Happy writing,