Whenever I complain over the fact I seem to need at least ten or twelve years per book, I nearly always hear these words of comfort — “But of course. You have to do all that research.”
At first I’m tempted to agree — after all, the person is trying to help me out. But the fact is, it’s nowhere near true.
Actually the research might be the least aggravating, most straightforward part of writing an historical novel. If you can read, you can do research. Research is fun — even a heart-pounding thrill if you’re in love with your subject matter, almost to the Indiana Jones-and-the-Temple-of-Doom level. I can fancy myself a hero-archeologist bravely unearthing facts that will rock my characters’ worlds. At the least I’d compare it to a treasure hunt where you almost always find the treasure. Research helps you shape your story, and on a good day it can even suggest a nifty plot complication, fully formed, little assembly required. While researching your story, you can fantasize you’re a sculptor or painter sniffing around for “found objects” to use in an art piece. (Now, incorporating that research — that’s a whole other ball of wax. One pitfall — falling prey to what we used to call “research rapture” in Leonard Bishop’s group. That’s when you can’t part with any of the succulent facts you’ve rounded up and so you use them all, and end up doubling your book’s length.) But doing the research just isn’t what causes me to pack in the ten or twelve years.
That award goes to formulating the plot line. That’s the real hair-puller. Finding that story complication that that puts your main character under the right kind of pressure — meaningful pressure. Discovering the scenes that bring out new aspects of your characters’ personalities; setting up the kinds of problems that open out the story. Each plot complication must pluck the right emotional note in a reader’s mind. A story line itself can be a kind of poetry; some plot twists seem to thrum archetypal chords for reasons baffling to name; others don’t. Coming up with plot complications that feel right, that hopefully will linger in memory — now that’s what’s hard.
Historical novels do require massive amounts of research — they’re born from it, in a way, like a lotus out of the swamp, and they’re closely guided by it as the book progresses. But sometimes I think research is overrated — at least for novelists, not for writers of historical nonfiction. An historical novelist must be an artist first. You’d lose your audience otherwise. You’re using impressionistic techniques to spark a reader’s imagination. When lost in the excitement of a scene, a reader receives the impression that a book has revealed much more about a period of history than the author, in fact, has. And consider this — if new archaeological discoveries happened to negate a fact an author has woven into an older book you love, would you suddenly love the book less? Has the story somehow become invalid? Or did its “validity” rest on something else all along — all that alchemy involved in the writer’s ability to make a time period come alive? In crankier moments I think expecting to learn history from an historical novel is like trying to learn botany by studying impressionist paintings of trees. There’s truth in those trees; it just isn’t literal truth.