games kids used to play

The cause of – and solution to – the historical novelist’s problems

For the historical novelist – for anyone interested in history – the internet has brought about a revolution. We are floating in a sea of information that deepens and spreads minute by minute. It’s incredibly empowering, but it also has its dangers.

Reading room at the British Library

If you came of age before the internet, you will remember how things were. An argument over supper about any given war could not be resolved by opening a laptop. If it was a Saturday night, you were most probably clueless until Monday, when you could call a reference librarian or go there yourself. As a kid I jumped on any excuse to go to the library, but I was still limited by normal operating hours. A million questions, small and large, simply remained unanswered before the internet and we lived with that. The capital of Peru, the author of Antigone, where Napoleon was held captive, when women got the vote – if you didn’t have access to a good encyclopedia, your choices were few: maybe there was someone you could call. Usually the person on the other end of the line would have no idea who wrote Antigone, but she did happen to know when Wrigley Field was built. Not that you were asking.

Rents in Manhattan in the Gilded Age

Since that time, we have gone from one extreme to the other. At two in the morning I can crawl through newspaper archives to find out the rent on a typical three bedroom apartment in Manhattan in the year 1900. I can look at museum exhibits on Edwardian dress or Bronze Age artifacts, or read an article on bovine diseases. As more and more becomes available on-line, things only get better. Or worse, depending on your perspective. My husband, the Mathematician, makes a particular face when I start a sentence did you know. From that expression I am meant to understand that he is  listening, but that I’ve got maybe thirty seconds before his mind goes elsewhere. This approach works well enough to discourage me from telling him exactly how pencils were manufactured in 1800 or how much horse manure was left on the streets of Manhattan every day before the turn of the century. If I’m particularly animated about something I’ve found, he will raise an eyebrow a half inch or so to acknowledge my discovery. And that’s fair enough. I don’t understand anything about his work, either.

The Dangers

For 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.

take heart

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.

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