I love to do research. Seeing a glimpse of daily life in other eras fascinates me. I loving learning about popular entertainment, food of different days, clothing, and so on. When I read accounts of someone surmounting incredible odds or overcoming great hazard, I imagine the actual people in such situations. I wonder what they felt, what possessed them to persevere. I want to see everything through them, feel it as if I’m there. History is full of exciting adventures just waiting to be fleshed out through the eyes of characters facing—and often conquering—tremendous challenge.
I also love going to the places that play the important role of setting in my books. While it’s obvious
such places have mostly changed from what they would have looked like in historical times, I still want to get a feel for distances, and check out any historical sites that can offer a real taste of what various aspects did look like during the era I’ve chosen to bring alive again.
But . . . you knew there was a “but” coming, right? Can an author put in too much setting? Too much historical fact? I recall the very first book I wrote for publication. This was way back in the 80s, when historical romances frequently surpassed 100,000 words. I felt so free to wander about in my stories, to develop subplots and throw in all the lovely research I’d meticulously gathered. Even with that freedom, though, I only ended up using a fraction of the material I’d uncovered. I never regret doing too much research, though—an author who knows her setting allows the voice behind the story a certain amount of confidence that’s bound to come through.
These days books are far more streamlined. In the age of sound bites and one-liners in social media, one-page digital articles (heaven forbid the reader must scroll!) we’ve moved toward shorter books and even shorter chapters. There are exceptions, but it’s risky for a publisher to invest money in longer books from unknown authors.
One exception to my shorter length theory is The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova. It’s not a new book, but it’s not that old, either—published in 2005. This book was the selection this month for the book club I belong to, a secular group that often chooses something to match the season. This book is appropriately named, because the author herself obviously loved her historical research. I would argue too much, but I’m not sure how well that argument would be received considering the phenomenal success of this book. There is only one true measure of a book’s length, reflective of a saying I truly believe: a good book is never too long.
There is a balance to be found between story and research; research needs to carry its own weight within the story, or even readers like me who love history will either get bored or worse, put the book down altogether.
What about you? Have you read a book lately where the research was appropriately balanced? Where you came away realizing you’d learned something, but never lost the entertainment value? That’s the sweet spot on this issue!