Back when I had a writing career, I was given some advice. I was having lunch with my agent and the editor of the Science Fiction Book Club. (My first novel, The Year the Cloud Fell, had been a featured alternate at SFBC.) When the conversation swung around to my work, the editor said, “your books have too much history.” My agent nodded, sagely, as if this was the most obvious thing in the world.
I’m very good at not reacting immediately to bad news. It’s a defense mechanism, really. Treat me with rudeness or disrespect, tell me my dog died, or drop a pithy little bomb like “your books have too much history,” and I shut down. The smile stays up. The amenities and little etiquettes are still observed. Platitudes and small talk continue to be exchanged. “How nice.” “It was a pleasure meeting you.” “Until next time.”
Meanwhile, my inner child is weeping, my reptilian brain has fled for a safe, dark corner, and my intellect has gone all blue-screen on me.
“Too much history”? That’s like telling Mozart his music has “too many notes.”
I hadn’t planned it, but my books all have a strong historical or cultural context. In preparation for each book, I’ve delved into the world where my characters will live. From 19th c America to 9th c Bretagne, from the Bedouin tribes of the Middle East to the yellow fever outbreak in 18th c Philadelphia, I study each topic and infuse my work with detail.
But, “too much history”? In time—in a short time, actually—I was able to see the truth of this statement.
When I had that lunch meeting, I was writing Unraveling Time, my time-travel adventure romance (yes, I do mash-up my genres). I was writing a sequence where my hero appears on the battlefield at Potidaea during the Peloponnesian War. I had done extensive research on the battle, on the tactics of hoplite warfare, and on the two secondary characters who were going to show up on the scene, Socrates and Alcibiades.
Hoplite warfare was distinct in many ways, but most notable was that both sides all lined up, shoulder to shoulder, shields in the left hand and spears in the right. The lines would march toward one another until they met, and then they’d begin a massive, lethal rugby scrum, pushing with the shields and stabbing with the spears. Behind each hoplite was a file of hoplites, all pushing the man in front, ready to take a turn should the man in front fall.
An interesting detail of this method was that, the spears all being in the right hand, the ranks tended to drift to the right, sort of like a mis-matched zipper, and the line of battle tended to twist in a counter-clockwise motion.
A few days after this lunch, I was writing that chapter (yes, all this research was just for a couple of chapters!), and I was trying to fit that detail into the narrative. And that’s when I caught myself.
I realized that I was trying to fit every curious and interesting (to me) detail into my book. I wasn’t thinking about how (or whether) each detail contributed to the setting or the narrative. I wasn’t thinking about how the flow of the story would be affected by such minutiae. All I was thinking was, I had all this knowledge, and I wanted to use every bit of it.
It was “too much history.”
There’s a fine line we have to walk when we blend reality with fiction. For instance, it’s important when I describe the Battle of Agincourt (Unraveling Time) that I get the lay of the land correct. It’s important when I describe a 9th century hut (Ploughman’s Son) that it accurately reflects the technology of the time. And when I describe the way a camel stands up and lies down (Dreams of the Desert Wind) it damned well better be factual.
But do readers really want to know who owned the fort on the hill to the left of Agincourt? Or what wood goes into the bent-wood roof of that hut? Or how you actually milk that camel?
It’s not that the research isn’t important. It’s very important. The details I learn during my research often help me frame the narrative, and give me ideas about busy-work the characters might be doing in a given scene. The research keeps me from making factual errors (did horse riders use stirrups in the 9th century? Could you send a telegram across the Atlantic in 1888?) and gives me a sharper mental picture of the setting.
But there are limits. There’s an edge I need to walk. It’s fiction, not a sociological treatise.