The DangersFor writers of historical fiction, there is a Too Much of a Good Thing Syndrome. You look up a particular murder trial that happened in 1799 because you need to know how lawyers addressed each other; three hours later you finishing reading about horse breeding in Turkey and can’t remember what you wanted in the first place, or why. A scene you’ve been trying to write for days simply will not come together. You decide that the reason for this is simple: you don’t have enough background information. In a part of your brain you are ignoring you know that the scene may not belong in the story, or the characterization might have taken a wrong turn, but these are thorny problems that make a writer anxious. It’s much easier to try to find out when they started using screens on windows to keep out flies. (Something I haven’t been able to track down, by the way). Curiosity is, of course, a good thing. It’s when curiosity and compulsion get together that research starts to overshadow story. I think of it as the fraternity hazing syndrome: It took me hours and hours of work to learn how to make a boot, and by God, you’re going to learn it, too. Most usually we couch it differently. When the editor asks, so very gently, if maybe the research is getting in the way, you stand up to defend not yourself, but your readers. Of course they will be interested in the way Egyptians irrigated their crops, this is fascinating stuff. Now, when you hear yourself saying – or just thinking – that kind of thing, you must recognize that you are in trouble. Your characters are being neglected, your story arc is in danger of collapsing.
Basic truth for historical novelists: the information may be available, but that doesn’t mean you have to use it.But wait. It turns out that the internet is both the cause of, and the solution to, this perennial problem.* If you find yourself luxuriating in two hundred year old classified ads for Restorative Liquors, don’t burden your story with all those glorious details. Use the smallest possible bit, and then take the rest of it and post it on a weblog. Weblogs are easily set up, and can be had for no cost at all. You can start one in ten minutes, and then use that space to share all the bits and pieces you have collected so lovingly. Eventually this will turn into your own encyclopedia of resources and information about the time and place of your story Readers who would have been irritated by a long description of early treatments for syphilis will come of their own free will to your weblog to read about such things, and (another bonus) discuss it. The internet is not just a gigantic, 24/7/365 reference librarian, it is also a communication tool, and a way for writers and authors to reach out to old readers and win over new ones. *With apologies to Homer Simpson.