Gentle reader, if you have read my novel Prodigal Spell, you know I write historical fantasy. This post is directed mostly to fledgling writers out there, and it is a warning. Ignore historical accuracy at your own peril. Research is necessary, but is its own cruel challenge.
My novel is set in 1790s London and the Caribbean. It would be ludicrous to NOT have slavery present- my heroine is a landowner. I researched the slave trade, transport routes, auction sites, the whole sordid mess because I wanted as much historical accuracy as my fantasy novel could support. My London scenes were researched as thouroughly- I actually cut two scenes set in the British Museum because I could not verify if the real- world exhibits I included in my fictional world were on display at the time. Unable to crystallize those facts, the scenes were removed in the final edits.
Readers who digest historical works want accuracy. If I pick up a Cold War spy novel, it better have actual adversaries in the world-building. If there is a Colonial work about witch trials in the American colonies, I subconsciously look for a reference to the Salem Witch trials. It matters, and how you incorporate it into your stories is where to be clever.
Here is where historical accuracy can become a whirlpool to the center of the Earth; an author can spend so much time researching, agonizing over the tiniest details, that the writing lays discarded. I heard that siren call myself and lost a good three months of productivity. I am a slow writer, so three months of lost words is like three novels worth of time for others:)f
Too little facts, and the book floats in its own sphere, not quite here and not grounded. The other end of the spectrum is just as faulty- too much real-world and the book is a history book disguised as a work of fiction. Few authors can pull this off well.
My process is thusly- first, I research the general time period and “all the things I think I know” and keep these web clippings in one place. I use OneNote and Evernote for this, but as I move to Scrivener, it may make sense to have this in the WIP binder. Next, I outline the work. My outlines are not as robust as some and I add as I write, but it is a good way to know where my thoughts land. Lastly, I keep a running list of things I ponder as I outline or write, and research JUST THOSE THINGS as I am writing. Too much free-form reading while creating and I am lost. Once my rough draft is complete, I let it marinate for several days before starting the editing process. As I edit, again I track down details and incorporate them into the story, so that I feel comfortable by the end of the first edits that I have the historical details correctly reflected in the work. None of this is foolproof, and every time I have a beta reader for my work there is always a detail that needs fleshing out, but they are few. This process works for me to balance the writing and researching- your mileage may vary.
Don’t let the idea of researching a topic deter you from writing a novel. Have a plan, make a plan, and stick to it. That is the best writing advice for any stage of writing.
I hope this helps any newbies out there!