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?