Sunday, April 14, 2013


Once, I heard a very wise author dispense some sound advice about writing historical fiction: "Write the story first, and do the research later."

No, she wasn't advocating blissful ignorance. Of course, you don't want to set a story in a time and place you know absolutely nothing about, but if you didn't have at least a nodding acquaintance with your era, you wouldn't be inspired to write about it in the first place.

The gist of her argument was that you need to get your story down in a headlong rush—dramatic highlights, pivotal encounters, the shape and scope of the plot—before distracting yourself with the details. It won't be perfect; the first draft never is, but you can seed in the facts later. First you have to tell yourself the story.

But start out with the research, and chances are you'll be overwhelmed. Maybe diving into the history is so much fun, it eclipses everything else. Maybe events in the historical record don't play out quite the way you imagined, or contradict your ideas. Maybe the sheer enormity of research material starts to make your puny story seem insignificant by comparison, or the massive accumulation of detail starts to knead your tidy little idea into a gigantic, amorphous, Blob-like thing as you try to fit them all in.

In any case, your story as originally envisioned might get completely lost. Or you may become too paralyzed to write it at all.

My current WIP is the third installment of a trilogy, so I'm already familiar with the period, in a general way. And my characters are eager to jump on the page and start interacting. The writing goes pretty fast until I get bogged down in details about, say, the textile trade in Leeds, or the patent theatre system in Georgian London, things I don't seem to know off the top of my head. Things that may only be important for a scene or even a sentence or two.

So now, in the interest of progress, I leave a parenthetical note to myself in the text, along with a companion note in a separate doc of Stuff to Look Up. I write in the mornings, so if I have time in the afternoon, I might devote an hour to poring through info on these very particular subjects.

But if not, I'll get to them all later, after the first draft is done. The main thing now is to find out where the story is going; once that's done, making adjustments to accommodate the details will be far less daunting.

So when that first, elusive phantom of a story wavers into your brain, type first and ask questions later.

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