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,

Lisa

9 comments:

Delia DeLeest said...

Thankfully, I've only had one unexpected research surprise and it was a minor one. I'd never even dreamed that Betty Boop wasn't around in the '20's, so I didn't check it out. Fortunately, an issue of Smithsonian magazine set me straight before I looked like an utter dunce.

Michelle Styles said...

It depends on when and where you discover the new research. How much is it going to impact your story? And also how accurate you think the new research is. Sometimes, great theories are trumpetted in the media only to be blown apart several months/years later. And how wide spread is the knowledge from the new research? Confined to an obscure journal?
You are actually far more likely to get letters when you have used the latest research that overturns long held notions, rather than accepting the status quo. And not everyone who writes to you will be correct as well.

So the short answer is it depends -- sometimes, one goes back and changes things, and sometimes one acknowledges it in the footnotes.

What do you do when a reader writes to you pointing out the error? There is little you can do at that point, even if you know the reader is wrong. All you can do is thank them for taking the time and trouble to contact you. You can then keep a file, in case there is ever a new edition.

Ultimately I write historical fiction, and as such I am creating my own world. Although I do try very hard to get the facts correct.

Christine Koehler said...

I have to agree with Michelle. Sometimes the media blows new research out of proportion, then it's realized not long after that the original theory is still the correct one. Or at least the popular one. Plus you always have at least 2 sides to research, so oftentimes you can take whatever theory you want.

My problem is with historical notes in a fictionalized book - I don't like them. If you're changing something so drastically that you need to, essentially, apologize to your readers for it, it's not straight historical, it's AU or alternate history. Neither of which I have a problem with and in fact enjoy. As long as they're labeled as such.

The way I see it, is that on one hand you’re manipulating small historical facts: Who was the Duke of this or that, who fought in this skirmish or battle, a king or queen having an illegitimate child that becomes your hero/heroine, or adding a long list of Barons and Knights to a Medieval setting to fit your story. On the other, you’re changing something BIG – location, time period, ending of an event, or taking that event completely out of play – to make work what you want to write.

That, to me, is alternate history or even in today's jargon paranormal, not historical fiction. Nothing wrong with it, especially if it’s the story you want to write. But it’s more Science Fiction king Harry Turtledove, not say, Wilbur Smith.

Remember, these are only my opinions. *G*

carrie_lofty said...

I'm having this issue with my WIP because it is a (striving-to-be-factual) medieval novel based around what is, essentially, a fictional character: Will Scarlet of the Robin Hood myths. Most research indicates that Robin Hood, the person, did not exist -- and if he did, he roamed Barnsdale Forest (east of Melton Mowbray) rather than Sherwood Forest. Other parts of the myth do not correlate with history, either. Like a writer who might have to decide whether to integrate new, lesser-known research, I am walking a line between the myth (what people expect) and my factual research.

Kim Iverson Headlee said...

Definitely depends on where in the pipeline your story sits. While waiting for DAWNFLIGHT to be published (i.e., the text had already been finalized), my husband & I decided to blow part of the advance on a trip to England so I could conduct on-site research for future books. One of our stops was the site of my heroine's home fortress -- which I knew was a Roman encampment at one time, but I didn't realize the surrounding terrain was relatively flat! Oh, well. In the 7+ years since DAWNFLIGHT was published, no one has caught this error yet.

==My problem is with historical notes in a fictionalized book - I don't like them. If you're changing something so drastically that you need to, essentially, apologize to your readers for it, it's not straight historical, it's AU or alternate history. Neither of which I have a problem with and in fact enjoy. As long as they're labeled as such.==

I don't use my "author's notes" essays to apologize but to clarify for readers that the research tidbits I incorporate are accurate. Especially with regard to LIBERTY, wherein most readers probably won't realize that Roman engineers invented concrete, for example -- and at least 5 different grades of it, too. I did also take the opportunity to point out that I chose to set Rhyddes's story about 100 years later than carbon-dating of her remains indicated, so that I could incorporate a Roman emperor who wasn't a raving megalomaniac -- but, then, carbon dating has been proven to be not entirely reliable, anyway. I don't call that an apology so much as a revelation of literary choice.

Happy researching - and writing!
Kim

Eliza said...

I hit this kind of snag this morning.

In the scene, characters of a specific nationality that were being prejudiced against (the characters and nationality), and I started Web searching for a bit of information to add a little extra umph to the scene. And then I found something that changed the whole subplot.

But I'm lucky -- it's the first draft, and I had only just started that storyline. So I went back and tweaked on the spot.

So yes, I always go back and change it. What I *hate* is when I've completed a ms and find out a bit of info that would make the storyline all the better. I keep that stuff for rewrites, if I ever get around to pursuing that ms.

Christine Koehler said...

Kim Iverson Headlee said... I did also take the opportunity to point out that I chose to set Rhyddes's story about 100 years later than carbon-dating of her remains indicated, so that I could incorporate a Roman emperor who wasn't a raving megalomaniac -- but, then, carbon dating has been proven to be not entirely reliable, anyway. I don't call that an apology so much as a revelation of literary choice.

Kim - I love it when authors use their notes to explain something we think of today as a 'modern' invention and show how it was really invented thousands of years ago. Your concrete example is great! And carbon dating is far from perfect, you’re right. lol, you cracked me up with the ‘megalomaniac Roman’ emperors.

Looking over my original post, I see I neglected to say that my opinion about author notes was a generalization. I’m not against them, nor an author’s choices to move a story to a different time. I can’t explain it any better, and I know I’m explaining it poorly. I’m not a history purist, by any means. Maybe I’ve just read one too many books when moving the plot a year forward or backward, or to the correct country would work perfectly fine without expense to the plot, which is key. This pet peeve is mostly over more recent history, 1700 onward, when a lot more and (more or less) accurate records were kept.

As I said, it’s a poor explanation. Authorial notes won’t stop me from reading a book, and now I’m curious about Rhydde’s story and the use of concrete. *G*

Lisa Yarde said...

This is an issue I'm facing in my current WIP, a romance set in the pre-Norman conquest period. Saxon man, Norman woman fall in love, but of course everything from societal and geographic differences, political ambitions and each character's spouse keep them apart.

I have submitted the WIP to one of my critique groups, and unlike Christine, one of my reviewers is a history purist (to the extreme). I admire her for it, but it's not my style of writing. Now I don't have anything as ridiculous as King Harold defeating the Normans at the battle of Hastings, but some of my submissions have earned me an e-version of a rap over the knuckles from her for minor points on which most historians still disagree. Guess the adage is true - there's no pleasing everyone.

Like Michelle, I am creating my own world within the bounds of history, of course. But when I receive some questionable advice, I always remind myself of something - those of us who write in this genre are not historians, we just love to write great stories that happen to have a historical context.

Happy writing,

Lisa

Morag McKendrick Pippin said...

I like author comments explaining such things as the Romans inventing concrete. I love historical trivia.
I did write an author note at the beginning of PERFIDIA (formerly BLOOD MOON OVER BERLIN) which is set in the Autumn of 1939 in Berlin re early tv. Every crit I received told me tv didn't exist at the time or that it was in its infancy and no one owned a tv. But it did exist in Nazi Germany! German programming was quite extensive at the time.
Some happenings/inventions do need explaining because although true, they are not commonly known.