Researching an Historical Fiction Novel: How Much Is Too Much?

Researching an Historical Fiction Novel: How Much Is Too Much?

by Marcus A. Nannini

too much research

The further removed your novel is from the present day, the more critical the research element becomes. You know the story you desire to convey, but the details – those nagging details – are proving to be daunting as the time you spend researching them is piles up and the time you spend creating your novel decreases. As a writer of historical fiction, part of my goal is to receive reviews of my work stating something similar to: “There is enough here to make you wonder what exactly is fiction and what is not.”

It is almost impossible to perform too much research. Your research time should yield more than the ability to create vivid impressions of the locale, manner of dress, dialogue, etc. It should actually feed you ideas for the story, allowing the creation of a novel that draws the reader into it as if she/he were stepping through a time warp. The reader needs to be absorbed into the story as if it were a movie and they were playing the part of  an “extra.”

Each scene should be created in enough detail to set the stage, yet if you go too far, the reader may begin skipping paragraphs. For example, in describing a room, does the wallpaper need to be described as a “brightly colored floral pattern,” or should it read “a floral pattern composed of white lilies, yellow, white and red roses, pink carnations, cherry blossoms and pink and purple petunias with small, oval-shaped green leaves sprinkled throughout?”

Both may be appropriate, depending totally on the scene and characters you are building. If the character is suffering from obsessive-compulsive disorder, the second description might be better suited. In most instances, however, the first description would suffice. The point being, detail counts, but too much detail will lose your readers.

My most recent historical fiction novel entailed researching different time periods, cultures, and locations as diverse as Burma and Wisconsin. I compiled so much research it filled a file drawer, not including the six books I acquired, read, and notated. Notetaking is critical.

Take notes contemporaneously as you perform your research. Sit down at the end of the day and work your notes into a coherent outline, allowing you to easily see your original notes and the underlying research at any time.

Do not rely on your memory, or you will overlook key elements; as the information piles up, the opportunity to miss key details increases proportionately. Effective research mandates effective notetaking. Simply taking notes does not guarantee anything other than expending a lot of time re-reviewing them again and again as you search for the relevant information you should have placed into your outline. You will write a better novel, in less time, when your notes are organized.

In writing the historical novel, an author uses both their creative brain functions and the more pragmatic ones. The pragmatic part entails dutifully researching each element, and such research can be frustrating.

More than once, I have entered internet search parameters I expected to result in precisely what I was seeking, only to find my words had been grossly misinterpreted by the search engine or produced only partial results, mixed with totally useless results. Research requires the ability to approach a problem from multiple angles to produce enough information for you, the writer, to creatively construct your story.

For example, in Chameleons: An Untold World War II Story, it was necessary to re-create dialogue from persons as disparate as contemporary native Hawaiians working on an excavation site to Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto of the Imperial Japanese Navy in 1941. If you overlook the dialogue, with Southerners speaking as Californians, for example, you have lost the element of authenticity. All the more reason why you can never do enough research. In fact, I was performing ancillary research only a few days prior to my publisher’s deadline. I had been working and researching the novel for years, but a little detail suddenly presented itself to me and had to be addressed in the story. I sent the manuscript off knowing it was the best it could possibly be.

On the other hand, too much research making its way into the story can and will slow down the pace, and when an author loses pace, the author loses the reader. Make your decisions regarding deleting some facts or details only after you have finished your initial draft. During your first draft, insert all the detail you have, bearing in mind that it is only the first of at least a handful of drafts. If you fail to add a detail the first time around, you could easily overlook it later, only to discover, after the fact, that you omitted a fairly critical piece of information.

My first draft of Chameleons was just under 100,000 words. My final draft, as submitted and accepted by my publisher, was less than 95,000 words. Just because you write something does not mean you cannot cut it or dramatically alter it. I had to go through my novel and continuously ask myself: “Does this sentence/sentence grouping/paragraph add to my story? Does it keep the pace flowing? Is it really just superfluous, as I already have enough detail on the subject?”

Always remember the word “pace.” You must pace your novel. The best way to screw up your pace is by getting bogged down in too much detail – but it’s better to start with extra detail and pare it back or you find yourself with a review like this:

“I bought this book because I love the time period in which it is set. Was I ever disappointed, as the author consistently failed to paint me a picture, leaving out so much detail in so many scenes as to leave me wondering where, and when, it was taking place.”

In summation:

  • Research every aspect of your novel
  • Be certain you can easily refer to your original research
  • Add every bit of detail available to you as you write the first draft.

After all, it is only the first draft. But proper research will give you all the ammunition you will need to round it into a well-paced, beautiful re-creation of the time period about which you are writing.

Marcus Nannini
began his journalistic career when he published his own newspaper in the Marcus Nanninisixth grade, charging 25 cents for the privilege of reading the only printed copy of each edition. During his undergraduate years, Nannini was a paid reporter and worked three semesters as the research assistant for journalism professor and published author Richard Stocks Carlson, Ph.D. Nannini is a life-long history buff with a particular interest in World War II and the Pearl Harbor attack. His continuing curiosity over several Japanese aerial photographs and the turtling of the U.S.S. Oklahoma lead him to write Chameleons, first as a screenplay and now as a full-length novel.

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1 Response to Researching an Historical Fiction Novel: How Much Is Too Much?

  1. Marcus, what an enjoyable and useful article! I have one question: you say, “Sit down at the end of the day and work your notes into a coherent outline, allowing you to easily see your original notes and the underlying research at any time.” Is this a different outline than the outline of the novel? Any suggestions on outlining the research? Would you consider a follow-on article giving pointers or examples on outlining the research? Thank you and all the best.


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