Until I retired to write, I spent my formal working life as an academic librarian. As part of that job, I engaged in research and writing, along with helping others in their research and writing work. I regularly faced this question: If I don’t find what I’m looking for, is it because it isn’t there or did I miss it?
This dilemma is less intense for fiction writers, even historical fiction writers, because we aren’t conducting original research that must be complete and accurate or where results will affect life and death decisions, but we still face the same dilemma. If our work doesn’t come across to the reader as ‘authentic,’ the fictive dream is broken and the reader’s gone. That requires extensive and intensive research.
There are also certain historical periods that are fanatically known and researched by professionals and amateurs alike. Examples include the American Civil War and World War II. If a devotee disagrees with the tiniest fact that we’ve researched and swear is correct, he/she/ey can pillory us in a review that goes viral. Readers will accept fictional characters, but any real characters, the setting, the details must be as accurate as possible.
One of my adult students wrote about his favorite books by Mary Renault. She wrote fictional novels set in ancient Rome and Greece, a period he enjoys and he’s a fan, partly because she wrote good stories and partly because she conveys the authenticity that comes from a deep knowledge the period. Her main characters were fictional, the rest was not.
I can think of other fiction writers who carry that same authenticity. I am not a huge fan of historical romance, but I’ll read a book by Georgette Heyer anytime. She knew the manners, the culture, the diction of the historical periods where she set her books.
I was born in Scotland. Well-meaning acquaintances will draw my attention to historical fiction set there. Once, I was offered a book set in 16thcentury Scotland. I began reading, but gave up when I encountered dialogue that included the phrase “No problem” in response to a favor one character had bestowed upon another. I found this so egregious, I couldn’t continue.
When I get discouraged about my research—just one more fact, just one more book to read—I remind myself that my goal is to transport my reader to another time and place, as well as tell the reader a story. I think about the phrase “no problem,” and I return to my research with renewed vigor.