Monday, April 19, 2010

Research versus the Demands of the Publishing Market

Confession time. It took me almost five years to finish my first historical novel. Now, I'll admit to being a slow writer, but most of that time was spent researching the life of Cleopatra's daughter. Oh, sure, I'd seen the famous movie about Cleopatra--the one starring Liz Taylor. I'd read many excellent books about the Late Republic and Early Empire. But it took a long time to understand both the Ptolemaic Egyptian culture into which my heroine was born as well as the Roman world in which she was raised. But when I sold LILY OF THE NILE to Berkley, I knew all of that work and effort was worth it.

What I didn't know was that everything was about to change for me as a writer. When my agent asked me how long it would take me to write the sequel, I hesitated so long that she said something like, "Be realistic, but the right answer is not longer than a year."

I agreed because, let's face it, what was the alternative? There are authors who can get away with publishing on their own schedule. Their readers will wait for them no matter how long it takes. But that's not how it works for most authors. Besides, I thought, how hard could it be? The sequel is about the same woman I'd already been writing about. I had a jump-start on the research.

As it turns out, this was only partially true. I'd done enough research on Cleopatra Selene to know that I had much more to learn, because historical fiction and even historical fantasy doesn't just revolve around the life of one person. It's a snapshot in time, and a good author will capture those details and even their contradictions. I have realized that for every fact I've learned about the ancient world between the years of 30BC-14AD there are ten more unexplored paths I could take. I'm fairly confident I'll never know everything there is to know about those years, but that doesn't stop me from trying.

Recently, I spent three working days researching the mucus of sea snails to understand how my heroine made herself rich making royal purple dye. Before I had a publishing contract, I might have spent weeks researching this, but now I have a deadline, so there's a limit. I have to stop myself and just write the book, knowing that as a fiction author, the story has to come first.

Still, I'm curious. How do you balance the research demands of historical novels against the demands of publishing today?


Dr John Yeoman said...

This is a perennial problem. One can go the Philippa Gregory route and know one's history well enough, but mangle it for the purposes of the story. Or the Linda Proud route, and research one's period so diligently that one can make original research contributions (Linda's knowledge of Renascence Florence is unparalleled) but fail to produce a readable narrative.

I respect both these ladies. (Philippa has a PhD in 18th century literature but, with her market in mind, presumably sees no point in applying doctoral rigour to her novels. Linda was, briefy, my course tutor in historical fiction.) But one makes compromises, the other doesn't.

I've learned to accept Leonard Tourney's approach. As a professor in Shakespeare studies, he knows the language and mores of the 16th century very well. But he bastardises the former, using a neutral 'modern' idiom in dialogue that commits linguistic anachronisms, to communicate the latter to a modern reader who would be restless with any serious bid at 'authenticity'.

When Burgess tried to be 'authentic' to the period in his Shakespearian pastiche 'Nothing Like the Sun', the novel was panned!

I think the answer is: do enough historical research to avoid howlers in the novel but keep the fascinating details for a learned article.

This is hard. In an early collaborative novel, I tried to show how 17th century gardeners might have developed the Brussels sprout from the common cabbage, using a cloning technique four centuries ahead of its time. I was convinced my theory was a research breakthrough. It would excite all gardening historians! My co-writer struck it out.

The World of the Blue Bells Trilogy said...

Yes, always a hard line to walk. I find myself in the same position, having researched a very narrow slice of medieval Scotland for five years, and finding that the more I learn, the more I see how much there is to learn. I've just recently come from the world of buttons and how they changed clothing from the early to the late 14th Century, for instance, which answered a long-ago question I'd had about how my medieval Highlander would react to modern buttons.

I do prefer to be as historically accurate as possible, as a result of a man once telling me how finding potatoes in a Robin Hood novel destroyed the whole book for him. Having been raised in Ireland, he knew well that there were no potatoes in that time and place, and the suspension of disbelief disappeared the moment the author made that mistake.

But then, I imagine that there are readers of both ilks just as there are writers of both ilks, and I like any historical fiction with a good storyline that raises my interest in the era and historical figures.

Stephanie Dray said...

Dr. John Yoeman, let me just say that if anybody ever compares me to Philippa Gregory, I will die happy :P

Victoria Janssen said...

The problem for me is that I love research so much just in itself. I have to figure out where to stop, continually reminding myself that I only need to read one relevant chapter in a given book, or that it's okay to skim. Usually, I bribe myself by thinking, "I'll read the whole thing Later." There's also the option of using research to expand one's website content. I sometimes post reasearch on my blog, as well.

I think research is a feature of my writing, so if I'm in doubt about including a nifty detail (like how to make oakum), I go ahead and work it in. If it doesn't work, my editor can tell me to take it out. That hasn't happened yet, so perhaps all my science fiction reading helped me absorb enough worldbuilding techniques that I don't infodump.

My World War One research library is full of books I've only skimmed, or read partially. I suppose I'll be all set if there's ever a book shortage in the world....

Stephanie Dray said...

Victoria, I think that I'm going to use my extra research on my website, or maybe I'll post it here for Geekery ;)

T.K. Thorne said...

An interesting discussion and one I keep pondering as I look at the 7 books piled beside my bed! When I wrote my novel NOAH'S WIFE, requiring research of a time 7,000 years ago, I thought I would never be able to put it all together. At a certain point, I just start writing the story and stopped to research what I absolutely needed to know (sheep in 5500 BCE Anatolia? Agriculture?) A lot of my research happened post completion of the story and I changed what I needed to and added details that helped make it richer. It's a tough balancing act, indeed.

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