One of the biggest challenges with any historical novel is getting the details right. In the modern world, you can often go experience something instead of pulling the research out of the book. You can talk to a doctor, or a cop, or an EMT and get a lot of great details that you need. With any historical, the details often have to come second-hand from someone’s research. The biggest trick in all of this is what’s enough?
The first thing you will always want to do with a cool fact is to share this–too many cool facts dug up in research and you can end up with a travel guide, not a story. This is where a reader can help a lot.
With my Regency novella, Border Bride, I wanted the details for the elopement to Gretna Green to be as accurate as possible–and I had dug up a lot of great details from Cary’s Itinerary (a terrific travel guide of the era). Handing the story to a reader, however, turned up the issue that the story was now reading like a travel guide, too. Too many details got in the way of the story. A little editing and the story was back up front where it needed to be.
For Stolen Away, another Regency novella, again a carriage ride featured in the story–more elopements, but this one not voluntary on the bride’s part. This was where my experiences with horses helped a lot–I know what it’s like to ride in a carriage and a cart, so those details came easily. But, again, the details had to be there to support the story.
But what do details give you?
Details are what make the world come alive for a reader. And the right details make the difference between a flat one-dimensional character and a fully alive character. This is where you have to know your world and your people. It’s more than just the color of someone’s eyes–it’s about how does that person express emotion (what details give away the emotion to the reader). It’s about the tastes, smells, sounds, and other senses that bring the world alive–what’s the weather like (and does the character like cold weather or hot?)? Sounds and smells are often overlooked details, and are some of the most evocative in terms of putting the reader into a place and time.
In Silver Links, another Regency novella, the coastline became an important setting–the couple in the book met in Devon, near the coast. The smells of the sea became a part of the book–the sounds, too. And the heroine’s retreat from London to Devon was a vital part of the story. It both gave the heroine time to think about her problems, but it also became a symbol of renewal in the story.
And that’s something else that details provide–they become part of the story’s theme (which is why Silver Links is named that–it’s named that for the links of necklace that is broken, and it’s symbolic of the links of trust broken in the story as well).
So next time you’re reading–or writing–think about what are the right details for the scene? What do you need to put the reader in the room with the characters? What details will work with your theme?
Look for details that are not cliche–these will tend to leap to mind, so dig past them. Go for the detail that comes to mind after you’ve discarded four or five other ideas. Maybe the first idea that comes to mind are flowers and the scent of them–but that’s been used so often (flowers for love, flowers for death). That’s a good time to think deeper–to look at your characters and what would be meaningful to those characters. In a historical novel, those details need context, too. And that’s where you go back to your research to find the right detail you need–but just that one right detail.
You’re right about finding a balance with the details. There needs to be enough to paint a picture and ground the reader without making the novel read like non-fiction. I study and study, then let just enough of that knowledge slip into the writing to give it a realistic feel. Most of the information that provides the framework for the story, the reader will never see.
What really struck me from your post today (another excellent one) was the admonition to move beyond the first ideas which spring to mind, leave the cliches behind and dig deeper.