The difficulty with writing historical fiction is that it’s far too easy to get bogged down by details. Some aspirants never get further than researching. Others do start writing, but get stuck in the Web halfway, never to emerge again. Even if you manage to avoid these things, you may still fall into the second big trap of wanting to include every one of the fascinating facts you’ve learned in your novel. This can lead either to massive chunks of description or, if you try to be clever, to your main character explaining at length to their best friend, brother, cat etc. the exact recipe for boiled sheep eyes or how to hold a proper wake. The problem with this is, unless the secondary character has travelled back in time, they would know all that already. The conversation feels forced and stilted.
How do we avoid these pitfalls?
Let’s start with over-researching. I’m going to pass on a tip I learned from best selling author Deanna Raybourn on her blog:
You do need to know a certain amount about your period. But you don’t need to know everything in order to start writing. Read one or two comprehensive books on the subject. I used Ruth Goodman’s How To Be A Victorian for my Victorian (obviously!) YA novel. Get a feel for what life was like. Then start writing. As you do you will come across things you aren’t sure of or don’t know. Things you need to check. Underline them, or put a big question mark there, or both. Do not stop writing! When you finish your first draft go back and fill these in. You’ll know exactly what you’re looking for and it will be much easier and quicker than qualifying for a doctorate on the subject before you start.
This method also helps with putting in too many details. All too often you come across a passage in a historical novel that’s clearly only in there to highlight some piece of information the author has unearthed. I remember reading one in which an entire Georgian menu was included. Did I read it? Yes. As an interesting insight into history. It took me out of the story completely. That isn’t what we want to happen when someone is reading our book. So avoid become attached to information as you research. Never underline fascinating facts you just must include even if you have to force them to fit. And certainly don’t use them as a way to pad out your novel.
So, to sum up:
Have a well-rounded knowledge of your time period. But don’t feel you have to know everything. Fill in the gaps later, when you know what you need.
There’s no need to include all your research. The reader will be taken out of the story. Don’t worry though, it won’t be wasted if it’s not in the book. It will come out in the atmosphere as you write it.