How Much History?


Quite an assortment of you from around the world are either following this blog or have liked it and, I’m sure as I do to others, drop by now and then.

I don’t know if you’ve ever stopped by my site to read my theory on basic research for historical fiction, 50 Books. Everyone who likes writing histfi knows that doing the research can take over your life, which is part of the fun. The 50 Books theory is to guide the neophyte into not missing important areas, and remind the rest of us that, oops, we need to check how the other classes are living or what really goes into getting a meal on the table, or a table with a meal on it, or how long to get from hither to yon, or what the small talk is about.

Along with that, I have some exemplar guides, finished and partial, for myself or researched for others, on different periods I’ve written in, or planned to write in, from 396 BC Peloponnese to WW2 New York. Sometimes it’s the research failures that pulled the plug on the project, and using the 50 Books has helped me figure that out, and where the holes occurred (which doesn’t bring the sources I need into existence). At least one is a project off in the stages of “I need to assemble the research and begin reading”: in this case, I want to make sure I have my gaps filled before I sit down to a shelf-load of books, and especially before buying those expensive Osprey military monographs.

My concern, as I consider revising the list that goes with the theory is — do I have too much history in researching historical fiction?

Yes, enjoy the laugh. I did that on purpose. Anyone who knows me or my work knows I can be a fiend for accuracy and making sense. But for all that, in histfi and histfy and histsf and althist, if you are not setting it in the halls of power, or amidst historical figures, how many history books, of what sort, are really necessary? Should I be assigning those places to Books for Your Particular Novel? I often use the spaces that way myself, if you look at the lists.

Right now, the lists are primarily focused on everyday life/historical anthropology, because that’s what you need to know how people live, act, think, and even feel. Under the more usual history and biography I recommend …

14.) A fat history book of the area and century as an introduction.
15.) A history of the most influential country at the time (country A).
16.) A history of its rival (country B).
17.) A biography of the leader of country A
18.) A biography of the leader of country B
19.) A history of the country you are setting in, general.
20.) A history of the country you are setting in, that era.
21.) A biography of the leader of the country of your setting.

So that’s 5 histories and 3 bios, with another bio farther down.

Frankly, I wrote the lists with the person who got C’s in high school history in mind. You might be surprised how many of them suddenly want to write histfi or histrom, especially after a spate of, say, Dark Ages/Arthurian movies or a bunch of 1890s settings on the screen. They often have no clue that, say, Crusades to the Holy Land were not an annual event, but sort of once-in-a-lifetime. They don’t know which countries were at odds and why, and often aren’t real sure what countries exist (“Scotland isn’t part of England? Ireland is part of it? I’m so confused …”). I was also considering the fondness of American histrom writers for setting things in Renaissance or Early Modern courts, since either or both the h/h needs to be a lord or lady and historically important events are underfoot.

Yet, for those of us who normally cracked A’s in history and read the stuff for sheer fun, it seems like too much. If I’m writing in the NY/LA entertainment axis in 1931, do I really need to know the biography of Hoover, let alone King George or Mussolini? (Actually, in Near History, I recommend often skipping political figures for celebrities.) But even if I’m exploring the Mexican-American War, do I need to study the history and rulers of the UK and Imperial Russia? Do I really even need the bio, beyond Wikipedia, of President Polk? (Though I definitely need a good one or two of Santa Anna.)

Of course, the list is a guideline, not an absolute rule suitable for passage into law. It isn’t that I care if people fudge around with it (I do that plenty, and admit it in example lists). It’s supposed to be a helper, and remind them not to forget checking the whole range of life outside the history books or the white-collar urban male world. But I also need to remind them that these are all historical fiction forms, and they need to have the history down.

So, after reading the whole fill-in-the-blanks master list and some of the sample lists, what do you think?

Heaven knows that when I’m not familiar with the period from past reading I need at least light versions of some of these to help me figure if I’m in the right time and place, or off a few decades or one border-crossing, and our library is pretty history-heavy. But do we really need to know the background of Calvin Coolidge for some blue-collar ghost-hunters in Chicago? Do we need to look into the British court in the Hundred Years Wars when our entire concern is a small village under siege by scorcheurs?

What’s your opinion? How much history (as opposed to historical living) do you think histfi forms need?

(Please feel free to comment no matter how long it’s been since this was posted. One, you may want to think about it. Two, it’s an on-going question.)

One response »

  1. Hi Holly 🙂

    When we first met, I did have a look at your 50-books list, and I was quite pleased with myself that I had indeed already covered most of it.
    Personally, I think the more we know, the better. As well as I think the more we know, the less we know, because we learn more things and we realised there’s more and more to learn. I don’t mean we should go chasing every little bit of info, no matter what our story is about, but I do think we should keep our mind open, and not be afraid to recognise that there is something we should look more closely, no matter if (say… like me) we are on the fourth revision of our book.

    It happened to me with early jazz. My story set in Chicago in the Twenties, happens mostly in a speakeasy with a jazz band. I wrote the first two drafts without looking at the band at all. It was there, some of the musicians are part of the story, but I had other concerns while writing the first two drafts, such as getting the era setting (mostly) right, giving a reasonably vivid impression of everyday life in that age and of course, getting the plot right 🙂
    But as I came to drafts where the plot had assumed a cohesive look, I started realising that yes, I may have pinned down the basics of life in the speakeasy, but I had a lot to learn about the band. Did I need it? Well, you don’t know how much you need until you start writing the story and until you start looking more closely to characters.
    I realised I could use the band a lot better in the story (there are seven members, I just involved three in the first drafts. In the very first draft, I even didn’t give a name to the other guys). But in order to do so, I needed to know the dynamics of the band, the rhythms of the job, and even how every musician felt about his music and the way to manage it. So I started reading histories of jazz and a few biographies, I watched documentaries about early jazz, I listened to old recordings.
    I still think I don’t know enough about jazz, but I do know a lot more than I used to, and this helped me waeve all the musicians into the story in a meaninful way 🙂

    In the end, I think the story should tell us what we need to know. A friend of mine knows more about prostitution between Renaissance and Modernity than many people will ever know it’s possible to know, because that’s what her story called for. If I wrote a story set in the same time and place, I might never need to know anything about prostitution. She never needed to know how you can cure wounds with maggots, while I had to learned it for my story.
    I think your 50-books list is fantastic for getting an idea what you need to know, especially when you start with a new idea, then our story should guide us toward what we need and what we may just let be.

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