Home » Story » Historical Detail – How Much is Just Right?

Historical Detail – How Much is Just Right?

Historical Detail - How much is just right?Research is, for me, the primary pleasure of writing historical fiction.  Despite my love for learning all the details and elements of a time period, I’m left feeling that I walk a tightrope.

Novels need enough detail to provide context, accuracy, and the feel of our world setting.  However, too much detail can overwhelm the story and leave the reader distracted.  Not enough detail leaves the setting sterile, as if your story takes place in a vacuum.  I suppose most writers initially err on one side or the other, then working to balance it in the rewrite.

I forget sometimes that not all readers are history nerds like me, and so neglect to include some sort of grounding for a tidbit a reader may not understand.  How many people can immediately identify why the “night water” of men was collected on washing day or how dangerous it was to sleep in moonlight? For clarity, I’d need to provide context and make the tidbit matter.  Otherwise, it’s just distraction.

The same is true for historical elements I find particularly interesting.  If it isn’t necessary for setting, plot, or character arc, best to leave it out. (Though I am personally intrigued with elements of early medieval medicine, most readers would find the details distracting and disgusting.)

The problem with history nerds like me is that we will notice your mistakes. Serious ones will affect our enjoyment of the story. However, if your facts are right, they simply exist as a backdrop for your characters.  I live in fear of people like me who might call me out or toss my book aside because I’ve made an error.

I ran across an essay by Donis Casey earlier this week that relates her relationship with research and how much to use in her novels.  She explains what her purpose is for research, and then, in the quote below,  what happens to it:

But only a very small percent of the research I do for each book finds its way onto the page.  I’m trying to recreate a life in a bygone era, not to write a history book, and it’s amazing how little it takes to add just that perfect touch of authenticity to a story.

I also appreciate her note that recent history can be more difficult than the distant past. I know there weren’t cell phones in 1952, but which soda brands were available?  What color were school busses? (Hint, they haven’t always been yellow).

Like Ms Casey, only a small percentage of my research ends up in the novel, but having done the investigation, it’s all in my head somewhere and comes out onto the page when needed.

Amanda’s post earlier this week stresses the importance of research.  As readers, how often do you catch errors in books you read? Does it disrupt your reading experience?  How often do you run across historical references that are not clear in context?

9 thoughts on “Historical Detail – How Much is Just Right?

  1. I once read a book set in the 17th century, a period about which I’m an unashamed geek. The author made a minor slip-up, which I noticed. I can’t say it bothered me that much, to be honest. If I wanted absolute accuracy, I’d be reading a history book, not a novel. On the other hand, having a feel for a period or place can certainly add depth and realism to your work, so it is, as you say, a bit of a balancing act. If I get the feeling that the author has made a genuine attempt to imaginatively enter the period, the odd mistake doesn’t really make much difference to me.

    • Nothing worse than finding a society flaw in a Regency if it’s a major plot element or disregarding the structure Church imposed on a medieval manor house, but minor details don’t bother me too much. 🙂

  2. I am a fan of historical novels and very much a geek when it comes to history, but I have never written anything set prior to 1939.

    I agree that a wrong detail can bring the reader back to reality with a rather unplesant thump but too much detail is just as bad. The ‘rules’ you have mentioned for balancing the level of detail are applicable to any work of fiction, historical or not. I mainly write horror and urban fantasy and it’s the little, mundane details added here and there which allows the reader to suspend belief and believe the unbelievable. Plus, when you juxtapose something supernatural or fantastical with the everyday, the effect can be terrifying.

    Great post.

    • Thank you. 🙂 The guidelines work for sci fi and fantasy as well. I asked my husband if he would notice a flaw in a novel set in Faerun and his reply was that such a travesty would not ever see the light of day, so well known is that world, lol.

  3. I love historical fiction and am quite a history nerd, myself. A slip-up every now and then is understandable, but multiples in the same book is distracting and disappointing.

    What really bothers me is the ignorance to many modern ideas. I’m a physical therapist and it always floors me how little people know about modern medicine, or even scientific names for body positions (supine versus prone) which could very easily be remedied with the tiniest bit of research.

    I also love to research, so simple things like that really frustrate me.

    • One of the hardest bits of research I had to do was for a contemporary in which the character is in physical therapy after a near-fatal car crash. I can’t say I know all the terms, but I tried. 🙂 That kind of accuracy is more stressful than whether a farmer had a horse in 957 AD because it’s in the present and people will know.

  4. What I hate in Historicals is if the woman is too modern. It really keeps me from enjoying the story if it reads like modern woman dumped in favorite time period and it’s not a time travel story.

    My favorite time period to read about is antebellum and the Civil War. So yeah, slavery will come up. Guess what slavery is horrible and terrible and I’m glad it ended so long ago. The author doesn’t have to stand on a soapbox describing in grisly detail about the evils of slavery just to show it is evil. Tell the damn love story already.

    • I agree with you that it’s a drag to have a modern mindset preached in a historical novel. For that very reason, I very progressive female who completely flaunts the conventions of her time without a clear reason always makes me wonder what the hero sees in her lol.

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