Historical Detail: How Much is Enough?

Long before I began writing historical romances, I relished them as a reader. Taking a fictional trip to another time and place is an eagerly anticipated treat.

Now that I’m writing, I read differently, noticing what makes certain stories such a delight. Many factors come into play, but I was reminded recently how much I enjoy the inclusion of historical detail. When a writer can transport me to another era and make me feel like I’m right there with the characters watching history in the making, I’m happy.

This past weekend I savored Sarah Sundin’s latest World War II historical, Blue Skies Tomorrow. She does a fabulous job with historical detail. I read that she used some 200 sources to document the facts in this book–and her excellent research shows. I felt as though I was living those war-torn years with her heroine on the home front in Antioch, California and with the hero in Europe.

Like Sarah, I enjoy doing research and own an ever-increasing library of reference books. The photo shows some of mine. In addition, I have hundreds of websites bookmarked.

One challenge for me as a writer is to determine how many of the interesting nuggets I discover during my research to include in the story. Too few, and the sense of time and place aren’t well established. Too many, and I risk boring the reader.

My guiding principle is to make sure the historical references I weave into the story are there for a reason. Including interesting snippets simply because I found them fascinating can serve to weaken or slow my story.

Another challenge has to do with readers’ preferences. Some readers prefer a lean story that doesn’t dwell on the history, whereas others want a rich depiction of the setting that gives a real feel for the time and place.

Ultimately, each writer of historical fiction has to decide how many or how few historical references to include. Some writers’ voices and styles lend themselves to more description and detail than others. By having stories available from a variety of authors, each of whom includes a varying degree of historical data, readers of historicals can find stories that best suit their tastes.

• • •

If you’re a writer of historical fiction, how much historical detail do you like to include?

If you’re a reader of historical fiction, do you like a story with lots of detail or only a little?

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About Keli Gwyn

I'm an award-winning author of inspirational historical romance smitten with the Victorian Era. I'm currently writing for Harlequin's Love Inspired Historical line of wholesome, faith-filled romances. My debut novel, A Bride Opens Shop in El Dorado, California, was released July 1, 2012. I'm represented by Rachelle Gardner of Book & Such Literary. I live in a Gold Rush-era town at the foot of the majestic Sierras. My favorite places to visit are my fictional worlds, other Gold Country towns and historical museums. When I'm not writing I enjoy taking walks, working out at Curves™ and reading.
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25 Responses to Historical Detail: How Much is Enough?

  1. Wendy says:

    I need to read Sarah’s book! I think Rosslyn spliced in the perfect amount of detail in her book Fairer Than Morning. I think as much as how much to put in….it’s the where to put it in also.
    ~ Wendy

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Wendy, I finished Fairer than Morning a few days ago and agree that one of Rosslyn’s many talents is the weaving in of historical detail in just the right amounts.

  2. donnapyle says:

    Keli, your insight of knowing when/how much research to include is a very valuable point for every type of writing. Keeping a good balance enhances; leaning too much one way or the other disrupts flow and effect. Thanks for the reminder!

  3. What I write wouldn’t be considered “historical” and yet, like you, I read about the place and events that make the place and the people real. Where I have done a great deal of research in on the Vietnam and explosive sixties era. I have a book that I put away for a while that concentrates on this time which I know I will pick up and rework. It helps that I lived through those times, but we can’t trust only our memory or the reader will get a lopsided picture of the time.

    The balance is how much to use comes from your research and also from your love of the time and place. It becomes a part of you and naturally it becomes part of the reader. Enjoyed the post Keli, thanks 🙂

  4. Jill Kemerer says:

    I can’t wait to read Sarah’s latest book! I loved her first one–she’s an amazing writer. I really love her attention to detail in such a perilous time period. Her passion for WWII bursts through each page.

    I just finished Laura Frantz’s The Colonel’s Lady, and I was–as always, she’s stunningly talented–impressed by how she kept the deep point of view in historical context. If the main character was mentally comparing something, the comparison’s were true to the time. Does that makes sense? Plus, she built the setting throughout the book so that I felt I was right there in 1780’s Kentucky during the revolutionary war.

    Okay, I do this every time I start talking about Laura’s books–someone stop me from gushing!!

    I can’t wait to read your book, Keli! I just know it’s going to shine with your passion!

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      Jill, I’m eager to read The Colonel’s Lady, too. I’ve been a fan of Laura’s work since her debut novel. She does a super job transporting readers to the Colonial period with her amazing use of historical detail and description, including using period- and character-appropriate metaphors that enrich the story.

  5. I want to get lost in a story. After having read a story if I got sucked back through time I should know how that world fuinctions lol! With my cirtique group I’m always the one asking what are they eating- what does this place look like- they are by the water- does the air feel different- they call me a description whore- because I want it all.

  6. Loree Huebner says:

    Something I had to learn was to put your reader there…not give them a history lecture.

    Great post.

  7. Erica Vetsch says:

    I love historical detail, and I always fight not to have my books read like history tomes. To do that, I try to make the character interact with the setting rather than just describing the setting.

  8. As a reader, I love the detail. All of my senses are engaged and it’s almost like watching a movie in my mind.

    I’m in my first revision of my historical fiction novel so I am still working on providing that same experience for my future readers.

  9. Beth K. Vogt says:

    I need details that draw me in, make me feel like I’m there. I stopped reading one bestselling author because her historical novels had no sense of place. The stories weren’t grounded in storyworld. I loved her characters, but they could have been living in England in the 1800s or in the wild, wild West. It drove me crazy.

  10. Lisa Jordan says:

    When I was in high school, my friends and I used to pass around bodice ripper historicals. Yeah, so not appropriate, but I was a different person at that time. I learned a lot from the historical details woven into the stories. My first choice of fiction is contemporary, but I’m reading more and more historical too. Again, each novel is like a mini history lesson. And the rich description…beautiful. Looking forward to reading your book, Keli!

  11. Oh boy, I admire historical authors….I’ll admit, that amount of research sounds intimidating. When I read a historical novel, I like just enough historical info to give me context, but not so much to distract.

  12. I’m in the middle as a reader. Since I’m no history buff I do like to get the feel of the era through fiction, but if it’s overloaded with stuff that seems irrelevent to the story then it’s too much. When it starts to read more like a history lesson, than a good story, I move onto the next historical novel to quench my thirst.

  13. Keli Gwyn says:

    I’m enjoying the comments. From what I’ve seen so far, I can understand why historical writers face a challenge when determining how much detail and description to include. We strive for just the right amount, but that elusive “enough, but not too much” varies from reader to reader. We’re in agreement on one thing, though. No history lessons in novels. 🙂

  14. That balance is indeed difficult, and I’ll throw in an additional wrinkle: the first person narrator. A person telling her own story has no reason to explain or question any of the details of her surroundings (“This morning I put on my thong underwear, which is a garment that…”). It was a real challenge to find appropriate ways to work in details of clothes and such things in my YA historical — and I refused to resort to the tired old “looking at herself in the mirror” cliche.

    Does anyone have anything to say about this?

    • Yeah, I’ve found that a lot. Recently in reading George R.R. Martin, I noticed how we, as the reader, jump into the characters’ stories. They assume that they know what they’re talking about, so there’s no need for them to add anything else. That’s why they leave out crucial information leading to HUGE plot points: they already know what’s going on, why would they divulge their plans to themselves?

      In a similar way, things said in passing carry INFINITE freight, much like on Mad Men when they simply showed the commercial right before the JFK assassination aired. Everyone who had witnessed that event knew the commercial, but they never said anything about the assassination until the next episode.

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      M, I don’t write in first person, but my sister who writes paranormal romance does. I helped her with a big picture read of her first story this past weekend, and we had to deal with the issue of her heroine describing herself. Often my sister handles it by having her heroine think about others’ reactions to her, or she uses dialogue. I certainly gained an appreciation for the challenges those of you writing in first person face.

  15. Candy Little says:

    I have written an Inspiritional, historical romance. I loved the research and delving into the past. I put as much of the information I found into my novel without slowing the plot. It is a hard balance, I think the more details the better. I hate when I read a historical and it sounds like the present. I once read a famous Christian writer and she had the character take a bath. That was it. There was a lot more to their bathing procecss than we have today, so having one line that said she took a bath just didn’t work for me.

    • Keli Gwyn says:

      I’m with you, Candy. I like a story rich in historical detail. I do a great deal of research in order to be able to add it to my stories. I know I run two risks in doing so, though. One is that readers who prefer a lean story might think I overdo it, even though I work hard not to include information unless it pertains to the story. The second is that the more historical facts I include, the greater the opportunity for me to make a mistake. That’s why having critique partners, agents, and editors helping us is so important.

  16. Candy Little says:

    Keli,

    I do agree that some people like lean books, but I write the way I like to read. I have gotten several nice reviews on my novel, and so far no one has complained. The one lady said this was the first historical book she’d read and loved it. Unfortunantly the review was on Goodreads. I wish I could get it on amazon!!

    Best of luck with your novel. I will be looking for your novel when it comes out!!

  17. Julie Nilson says:

    I loooove historical fiction, but non-fiction history books put me to sleep. I think Loree, above said it best when she said you need to put your reader there and not give them a history lecture. If there’s too much outright exposition, it comes off like a lecture, but if you can weave the details into the story, it just adds richness and the more, the better!

  18. As others have said, it’s a fine line to balance, but as a writer I try to include a level of detail required to move the story forward. My writing includes lots of varying players, political machinations, which I sum up in a paragraph in varying chapters. No long political discussions of things that the characters would know just for the reader’s benefit – I hate it and hate to read it. For other details, such as those that give a sense of place and time, I try a light dose of them. In my crit groups, I would often receive comments equivelant to having my protag “stop and smell the roses” when he/she was in the midst of a crisis. I don’t think that’s the point at which you want to mention the native flora and other bits of scenery, not when such details interrupt the natural flow of the story.

  19. Thanks for the kind words, Wendy and Keli! I’m reading The Colonel’s Lady right now (whenever I get a free second!) and I really enjoy Laura Frantz’s style and detail.

  20. Wilma Metcalf says:

    I like enough to feel I’m part of the time but not feel
    like I’m back in school going to sleep in a history class.
    Sorry about that for you writers.

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