The Limits of Accuracy or When to Stop Digging and “Just Write the Thing!”

Alma T. C. Boykin

Anyone who has read my books, especially the Merchant series and the stand-alone Chinese story, knows that I am a compulsive researcher. I wouldn’t have survived two graduate degrees in history without suffering from this affliction. Or perhaps reveling in it. However, there are limits to what you need to write a good story, and especially to what your readers want to read about. A full description of the scent of a medieval city in a dry summer would come under “Not needed, no really, blarrrrgh!” Or a description of the aftermath of a pre-modern battlefield in hot weather, unless you know that your audience truly wants that level of misery. (See ‘Why Alma does not like to watch the battle scene from Kenneth Branaugh’s Henry V” for an example.)

I caught myself spending way too much writing time trying to find a map of central Lotharingia as it would have been around AD 950 CE, and contemplating how to use InterLibrary Loan (ILL) to obtain books and articles about the geology and mineral resources of said region. No. This is a novella, not a monograph! And it is fantasy, and I’m mucking with the history, so it was time to quit fossicking and write.

There are times when you do need to down-to-the-dirt level research for novels, especially historical novels and some hard sci-fi. Soft sci-fi as well, but the focus in that genre is less about the science and technology than it is about characters and their interactions. For example, when I researched genetics for Hubris, I did enough to make sure that I was close to the ballpark in terms of genetic modification and some concerns about “just snip and correct” changes to the genes of complex creatures. And about some general geology that plays a role in the story, and that I had nodded at in other books. That took a few days, since I knew what I needed and roughly where to look. That was sufficient, because the story did not center on the technology, but the social consequences of decisions on how to use that tech.

Historical novels, especially of periods that lots of people know something about, are worth doing basic info on. You know, so you don’t have Henry VIII involved in the War of the Roses? Or say that Albert the Prince Consort came from Prussia (or Italy. THAT was a good one. Not.) Chronology, ranks for your country or region, a little about climate and weather, sanitation or lack thereof (I didn’t wall the book with flush toilets in the Italian Renaissance, but I laughed in the wrong place. No, not an old Roman latrine. Modern-style flush toilet, even though porcelain wasn’t manufactured in Europe until long after the Renaissance.) Those are the really big ones that toss people out of the book, and may lead to the book getting tossed.

At other times, you have to ignore what really did happen, because popular understandings of history are so firmly locked. Like, oh, bras being invented in the late 1800s-early 1900s. As it turns out, archaeologists found a very worn cloth garment in a late Medieval latrine pit in what is now Austria, and there are written references to support garments that go back earlier. However, if you are going to make that a plot point (romance? Murder mystery as someone is looking at the corpse?) you’d better not call it a brassiere, because modern readers will imagine a modern garment, and everyone knows that said item was not worn back then. And don’t make it stretchy unless you use smocking or a knit fabric. And even then, someone will get irked because “everyone knows …” There are other things like this, such as the name “Tiffany” being purely modern, that might not be worth arguing against, even with footnotes.

You need to do enough research that readers don’t wall your book. Beyond that? To build a believable world, one that feels real while people are in the story. I tend to go overboard, especially where history is concerned, because 1) I’m obsessive about research, 2) I know where to go to do it quickly, 3) I’ve been very fortunate to manage to arrange research as part of other travels (and so I can stock up on reference material not easily or cheaply available on-line or in the States), and 4) I can often use what I find for books at Day Job, and vice versa.

The good news for writers is that for certain periods of time, other people have done nice books with quick guides to certain time periods, usually in England or the rest of Britain. Some apply more broadly, such as the Middle Ages in general. Things for reenactors are also useful, because they have to sort out how clothing and sanitation works, the perils and pleasures of cooking with open flame, or older Victorian stoves, and so on. Failing that, a general overview history of a place or country or time period is a good launch pad. Also, reading fiction that gets things right also gives you a sense of what works and what shouldn’t be there. For example, Pillars of the Earth gives you a less painful insight into the politics, economics, and shinanigans sometimes associated with major medieval building projects than does reading through church or municipal archives. You can probably find all that you need in those books without needing to resort to tracking down academic papers and monographs that might or might not be helpful and that will add time to your pre-writing.

Can you build a world? Can you give characters a culture and mind-set that is consistent and that readers will believe, even if they don’t entirely agree with it? Can you get the geography and travel times right? Can you get the weapons correct [not just firearms, but those are a common source of unintended mirth]? If so, Just Write It.

Stop digging and write. Don’t be Frederick Jackson Turner. Get it written, so you can sell it to readers.

Image Credit: Author Photo, Yorkminster, York, England. The structural model of the interior of the chapter ceiling and roof. Your book probably does NOT need this level of detail and description, unless you are re-doing Pillars of the Earth as written by a structural engineer.

23 thoughts on “The Limits of Accuracy or When to Stop Digging and “Just Write the Thing!”

  1. I read a lot of history and then just write high fantasy. The biggest issue I have is with people who don’t know they don’t know and do not even think before they put in cops directing traffic and lanes in the streets

  2. I smiled at your reference to Pillars of the Earth because — yes! — this is my sort of starting point for period research to back up fiction: find what strikes you as an excellent fictional resource, and then research that for accuracy. The issue isn’t just the particular bit of, say, technology — it’s also the way it fits into people’s lives, something that non-fiction monographs are weaker on (and that I think you do a good job of in your work).

    The banter in Georgette Heyer books tells you more about the usage of Regency slang than any description would, but (yes) there are inaccuracies (as in most fictional uses) that need to be looked at carefully before imitating it blindly in a real world work, or adapting it suggestively for a non-real world genre. Absorbing usage through fiction gives one a much better feel for creating fiction with it — if it works for me as a reader, it will work for someone else.

    In my current created-world fantasy WIP, where I have an “industrial revolution of magic”, I am essentially using the Regency-ish period as a world background, and that means my hero’s new discoveries compete with an “actual” Industrial Revolution that is also (to some degree) going on. To reduce that competition, I need to take (fantasy novel) liberties with the simultaneous non-magical science/engineering and some of the other setting originals (social conventions, etc.) without eviscerating them and having the sense of “Regency-ish” completely dissolve. It’s a delicate balance. Including early steam engines and organic chemistry (reduced and in the background, but with active visible consequences) while foregrounding magical biological discoveries and the resulting industrial social upheaval keeps me busy.

    You know what else I’ve found helpful (besides guides to various periods and some excellent fiction)? The David Macaulay books like “Cathedral” and “City” and “Mill” and “Castle” — that combination of specific historical instances with detailed architectural/building/function illustrations and explanations are invaluable for visualizing (and thus describing) immersive detail.

    1. Actually I’ve known people to complain that her banter is more Bright Young Thing than Regency.

      1. Not unlikely, but at this point you run into the issue of “what does a reader expect (these days) Regency fashionable banter to sound like? So if you want accuracy, there’s one standard. If you want verisimilitude, there’s another. And if you want understood-by-reader-for-the-effect-you want-to-induce, there’s yet another.

        Writing fiction to be read by a general audience is… tricky. 🙂

  3. Now you have me wanting to read an anthology titled:
    “Why Alma Does Not Like….”
    I’m POSITIVE you could come up with more than the Henry V battlefield as examples.

  4. I have a series of Fantasy stories set in a culture based loosely on Judaism. Recently an editor pointed out to me that I describe a meal in which the characters are eating lamb with milk. Now, my fantasy world isn’t Earth, and the faith of my characters isn’t Judaism, it’s an alternate world. There really isn’t any reason why the dietary laws that developed in that world would match the kosher/traif distinction that we have here.

    Nonetheless, we decided it was best to change it on the grounds that a reader who is accepting my characters as Ashkenazi-like might be thrown out of the story by that detail.

    1. OTOH, that does cause issues when you DO diverge and they will not believe.

      I literally had a critiquer tell me that I had the laws of my fictional feudal country wrong.

  5. I honestly love historical reenactors as a source, and a kind of visual reference, for the historicals that I write. The degree of obsession with details is wonderful, and a counterbalance with contemporary writings and memoirs which took a lot of stuff for granted. The reenactors and their materials fill in the fine details.

  6. Yeah, I’m fighting research paralysis myself on Book 3. I’m at the point where the story is starting to diverge wildly from history so I keep re-reading stuff to figure out how the changes are going to happen. Like Alma said, I need to just start writing.

  7. And now I want to find a spot to use the line “a room that looked like Escher and Dr Seuss had had a collision in a lumber yard”

  8. Fossicking. What a fabulous word that I’ve never seen before.

    WRT undergarments (and clothing!) prior to the invention of elastic.
    It’s drawstrings and smocking and knitting and careful tying and draping and pinning.

    I had a vintage clothing dealer tell me years ago that few women, even major vintage fans, liked wearing vintage maternity wear because of those *^%% drawstrings.

    1. I learned it from an undergrad professor (who was a Brit). It’s a wonderful way to describe “digging about, but with a goal,” as he put it.

  9. I’ve been stymied by the telegraph system at least twice in the Steampunk Dunedain WIP. The first time was: “Is it even working right now, since the unlikely power source for the city’s rather new electrical grid is down?” I literally had to consult family members who had paid more attention to the Hardy Pioneer family stories and had more interest in how things work to explain that telegraph stations usually had their own batteries. So a bit of background exposition establishing that this one in the story predate electricity to the town, fine. Last night I had to work out how long the important telegram would take to get to the recipient, and discovered that, yeah, assuming someone got a messenger out of bed at 2-something AM to hand deliver the message from the last telegraph station, the recipient could be in town via airship later that morning.

    1. And if you want the important person to not receive the telegram, just have everyone have a pretty good idea what’s in the envelope and absolutely no-one want to be the guy delivering that bomb to the boss of bosses. See Pearl Harbor and the Japanese Declaration of War.

      Bonus dark comedy points if everyone is also wrong about either the contents of the telegram or the boss’s likely reception of it or both.

      1. We’re not following the telegram recipient’s POV (hero’s uncle who is in charge of Dunedain Internal Affairs basically because he’s too much of a jerk to be turned loose either on the normies or the monsters), I just needed a timetable for when to expect him to show up looming overhead in an airship with the Imperial March playing.

            1. Oh it’s worse; it’s real. When Japan declared war on the US their embassy didn’t realize it was coming and wasn’t ready to receive and deliver it, and because of the US code breakers, most of the folks at the State Department has an idea it was coming and none of them wanted that hot potato.

              The end result would have been absolutely ridiculous if it wasn’t also the US entry into WWII.

        1. I hope that _The Victorian Internet_ (Tom Standage) is one of your sources for telegraphic communications. I loved that book.

  10. With regard to not going down rabbit holes, it’s been a rule in software development for years that at some point you have shoot the developers and just ship the product.

Comments are closed.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: