Writing Tips at GarySpeer.com

Tips for writers and musing about writing and life

More about doing research when writing fiction

I enjoy reading — and have tried my hand at writing — historical novels. For many years, as those of you know who’ve been around this site much, I fiddled with a couple of novels set in the American West of the 1800s. I’ve not yet finished one, but I have three that I’ve started and tucked away in virtual file cabinets over the years.

Research is crucial to a good historical novel. When you’re writing something linked to real people, places, and events, you must get the details “right,” as much as possible. Taking creative liberty with those details works out, because you are after all writing fiction. But if you get the details wrong, there are almost always history buffs out there who’ll catch your mistake and let you know about it. (For example, do you happen to know what color Hitler’s eyes were? Take a look at this previous post.)

Most often, novels based in the recent past are filled with anachronistic pitfalls if you aren’t doing careful research. There might be a handful of people reading something set in the 1480s in France; there would be many reading something set in 1999 America. As an example of a such a trap — do you know when plasma televisions were invented and widely marketed? What about something as esoteric as a plasma TV mount? I confess I really don’t understand plasma technology and television mounts in general. And I assure you if you write a story with a scene mentioning plasma televisions and mounts — someone out there will be quick to catch you if you try to fake it and get the time frame wrong.

So do adequate research when you’re writing fiction. Don’t obsess and spend all your time researching and not writing — but do adequate research to get the details right.