On two recent occasions, I heard different authors talk about the amount of research needed for a novel. Both of them argued in favor of doing enough research to ensure that what they wrote would be possible, but no more. Their perspective was that they were writing fiction, not history.
Other authors believe that you must “know” your background material so thoroughly that what you write is fully founded. This requires extensive reading, both general and specific, and absorbing as much as you can, whether or not you include all the information in your novel. This gives authenticity to your work.
As I write my historical novel, I have come to the latter belief. For my current novel, I began by reading extensively about the areas where my novel is set. Since then, I have discovered the need to read extensively in areas I could never have imagined, from mores to explosives.
As I think back on novels I’ve read over the years, particularly historical novels, the examples that stand out in my mind are the ones where I know the author is fully conversant with his/her/eir subject matter, and those examples come from all types of genres.
Consider The Spanish Bride by Georgette Heyer, a romance novel based on the true story of Harry Smith and Juana Maria de los Dolores de Leon Smith. Heyer knew the period and the story completely. Or the bestseller, The Ugly American, by Eugene Burdick and William J. Lederer, which sent the main character, Homer Atkins, to Southeast Asia to advise the fictional country of Sarkhan. Atkins challenges what he finds and exposes U. S. foreign policy as dangerous, on the wrong track, and losing.
In a recent issue of The New Yorker (May 27, 2019), Mark Singer profiled the television writer, David Milch. While the article’s purpose is to address Milch’s dementia and Milch’s thoughts about his dementia, the article naturally discusses his writings, one of which was Deadwood, considered one of Milch’s best works. To quote Singer: “He [Milch] began writing the pilot episode only after having spent two years digesting biographies and historical accounts of mining, the Indian wars, territorial politics, whorehouse and gambling protocols, rudimentary systems of justice, and criminality mundane and monstrous.” Milch is clearly not a proponent of “just enough.” Authenticity is part of the show’s success.
Consequently, I respectfully disagree with the concept of “just enough,” even if it has worked for some authors. Thorough research and the success of the well-researched and well-understood works I’ve specifically mentioned come from the in-depth, no-short-cut approach of the authors. No matter how time-consuming, the investment is worth the effort. The author can be confident in the details of his/her/eir work and allow the “fiction” to shine through.