London 1900: The Imperial Metropolis got me to thinking. How accurate does a historical writer have to be about the tiny details of place? Does it only matter about the major landmarks, or do the side streets count as well? How about what houses were on that street at that time exactly? Or is there no way to be perfect, because some reader will always know more about that particular place than you ever will?
I’m not thinking about clothing or household utensils or behavior or anything like that; just place. Real places, at real times.
I think about this overall issue all the time, applying it to many different aspects of my historical research and writing. Much as I love research, both the general reading and the detective work of digging out tiny details, for the most part I come down on the side of less is more.
I’m beginning to think imaginary might be more, too. In The Moonlight Mistress, two characters are driving from Germany to France. I started to check distances, and look for towns along the route, and thought how I would figure out the gasoline consumption of a 1910s model car so I know where they had to stop…and then I whapped myself in the head (mentally, and because I’m stubborn, it took several whaps). I didn’t need to do any of that, not for the type of book I was writing. Cool as it would have been, no one would have noticed and I would have fallen behind on my wordcount goals. I made up the name of a town where they stopped and bought some petrol. And to this day, no one has complained.
Sometimes, despite one’s best efforts at research, one’s best efforts at bending the story to the real setting, it’s just better to have an imaginary alley. Not totally imaginary–it will seem more real if you tie in the [small] imaginary to the [larger] real. But imaginary facts can be better and more useful at times. Why? I will give a numbered list.
1. Trying to research every inch of a certain place at a certain time can drive you demented (see above, with the whapping). If you’re writing a novel, the writing part should take precedence over the research part, because you are a fiction writer, not a researcher. It’s up to you, of course, to decide where to stop researching. I would advise doing so before you start trying to wear a microfiche viewer as a hat.
2. The information you want to find might not even exist. You could easily keep looking for ten years and then find out the only copy of the insurance map that showed the houses on that street in 1908 was ironically destroyed in a fire back in 1972. What do you do then? Besides weep, I mean.
3. Let’s be sensible, people. Really. Who’s going to check? And if they did check and complain to you twenty years later, would you care? Feel free to complain to me about my guesstimated petrol consumption in The Moonlight Mistress. I’ll wait.
4. Sometimes your imagination can get a fictional idea across in a better way than the reality. If in reality, there was a beautifully clean alley, but your story is noir, the story might be better served by a trash-strewn alley with mysterious stains. An example: I’m told for one of the cases dramatized in the series “Garrow’s Law,” Garrow is portrayed as the defender, when in real life he prosecuted that case. However, the show is about his innovations as a defense attorney.
5. Knowing too much can hamper the writing, not because it’s bad to know things, but because you can become too tangled in trying to include all of the things you know in the story. And not all of those things belong.
Finally, there’s the time issue. Certain series, for example Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin sea adventures, have a little too much story for history. As in, all the stuff that happens in those books? Is impossible, within the time frame when they supposedly occur. But I love those books, and I’d rather have the stories than have them be crammed into “real” time. So…I just kind of go with it. How long was that journey to Australia by sailing ship again?
Yesterday author Isobel Carr had a terrific post at History Hoydens about research and documentation, from a re-enactor’s pov.