I’ve been working on editing my chapter for my critique session in a few weeks and realized there’s a great deal of research that will be involved in making this world–a remote village in Northern Japan in the 1890s–come alive.
Being a historical fiction writer, this is extremely important. Of course every story, whether set in another place or time or Main St., U.S.A. in the 21st century needs to clearly convey the world so the reader can sense it. But with historical fiction, the writer has to convey the time and place accurately. Historical fiction that is well done will make the reader feel as if he/she stepped into a time machine and was placed back in said time. They must see the world–smell it, touch it, feel it–for what it was. It’s crucial to the story.
This is where obscene amounts of research on my part are neeeded. More often than not, I find myself surprised at some of the facts I discover and many times I find myself “lost” in the research process. But the writer (and this is for myself as well as any writer) must be sure that the prose isn’t overly saturated with research. All too often I’ve read historical fiction pieces where the author went a little overboard in description, talking about some mundane fact for a page or two, which then interrupts the flow of the story.
It’s tempting as the writer to do this because we want the reader to see all of the awesome facts we’ve found. But it’s not necessary to let the reader know what exactly the roof tiles were made of in 17th century London unless for some odd reason it’s integral to the story (and I’ve yet to find a story where that’s the case!). So it’s important to maintain that balance–enough description and research that the reader can feel as if they are walking alongside your characters through the muddy streets of a medieval village or on a chaotic Civil War battlefield in the heat of the summer–yet not so decriptive that it feels like a history lecture (unless of course you’re writing non-fiction, but that’s completely different).
I know it can be difficult to find that balance. Personally, I know I struggle with not giving enough description, which can alienate the reader too. It’s a long and sometime arduous process (especially if your story takes place in another culture and research material is hard to find or in another language), but finding those little tidbits can help make your book something that readers turn to for escape.