“I felt like poisoning a monk.” — Umberto Eco on why he wrote The Name of the Rose.
My first stab at writing a novel came after reading The Name of the Rose. I not only enjoyed the complex, well-constructed mystery, but I loved all the gritty details of simply living at that time. I liked seeing all the different ways life then differed from the life I was leading–and how these circumstances affected how people related to one another and to the world around them. And as is the case with many well-written books, it made me want to write something similar.
But the amount of research required was daunting. That novel (now securely in the trunk) ended up being a swords and sorcery story, because I was afraid of all the research. Do you know how many novels Umberto Eco has written? Six. Over the course of 28 years. Granted, he’s been busy with other projects as well, but who hasn’t? The point is, it takes a long time to get all those little facts just right. And, oh yeah, to weave them into a good story.
Of course it takes just as much work, maybe more, to construct a realistic, well-rounded fantasy world. Which is why I ultimately returned to historicals. The research can be overwhelming, but at least it’s well documented.
Research is time-consuming. It’s tedious. I’m impatient and get bored easily, so the temptation is always to cut corners and move on to the next project. How will anyone know that the flashlight was invented one year after my story is set? Will they care that this particular word came into use a decade later and on a different continent?
Oh yes. They will care. And if they don’t know, they’ll look it up. And then they’ll call you on it. Publicly.
Many readers of historicals are also armchair historians. And many live to find the anachronistic flashlight.
After Porcelain Dog was published, I began to review historicals for the review site Speak Its Name (http://www.speakitsname.com). It didn’t take too long for the books to divide themselves into True Historicals and Costume Dramas. True Historicals demonstrate intimate familiarity with the customs, beliefs, systems, and technologies of the given time period. Really, really good ones let the story arise from these circumstances, rather than beginning with a plot and altering the times to suit it.
Costume dramas, on the other hand, generally have horses, frock coats, and a breathtaking lack of interest in reality.
Of course if people didn’t enjoy them, there wouldn’t be so many published year after year. And far be it from me, a mere genre writer, to tell anyone what they should enjoy. If I made my own comfort reading list public, probably my dog wouldn’t even stick around.
But as a writer, it’s teeth-gnashingly frustrating to inch along, ensuring the historical accuracy of every letter, while some writers churn out three or four costume dramas a year. As an impatient writer, it’s torture.
Sometimes I fantasize about saying the heck with all the research, and calling it Alternate History.
But then I’d not only have to worry about what did happen, but about what realistically could have happened. And if you think armchair historians love to pick a nit, you’ve never kicked it with armchair alternate historians.
The thought of it makes me want to poison a monk.