Do your research, but spare us the detail

Research is critical – there’s always going to be an expert out there who trips you up as a writer if you don’t get it right. I once modelled for a photo-shoot where I starred as Mozart. The sub-editor overseeing it (an art historian) explained that even the inkwell I used had to be of the precise era, or they’d get complaints from pedantic readers. Luckily he knew someone at Sotheby’s and was able to procure one. But I digress.

When writing about a specific period in time you have to be able to write like an authority in order to be able to convince the reader and keep the disbelief suspended. (If you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi, you still have to ‘research’ or imagine the entire universe the story is set in – same thing.) I’ve just read a couple of time-travel novels and would like to talk a little about their period research – where it went right and wrong.

Time and Again, Jack Finney

Time and Again by Jack Finney, was published in 1970. Finney is probably most famous for his novel The Bodysnatchers, which was filmed as Invasion of the Bodysnatchers – though Time and Again is described as his greatest success. The protagonist, living in New York in 1970, takes part in a government time-travel experiment and has an adventure in the NYC of 1882. The novel was hailed as an instant classic. However, all of us in the Goodreads group I read it with found the descriptions excessively long. None of us could wait to finish the novel and just get it over with.

The author had clearly invested a huge amount of time (pun not intended) in research. He’d picked a specific period of time (stop it) and tied real period events into it, including a fire in a building that actually happened (contemporary newspaper clippings are included in the novel). The problem seems to have been that, having invested all that time in research, the author felt he had to use it and spew it out over the page.

You could argue that the protagonist – the story’s narrator – is being paid to be a professional observer by the government, and that this is therefore within his character’s behaviour. You could argue that, but if you read the novel you’ll find that it’s just badly overwritten. An editor should have chopped this. The length of the descriptions could have been cut quite comfortably after the character’s trait had been established. I suspect author and editor were aiming for an artistic legacy work.

Touched by an Angel, Jonathan Morris

Compare and contrast with Touched by an Angel by Jonathan Morris. This is what you’d probably call a ‘pulp fiction’ novel, written about the Eleventh Doctor Who (Matt Smith). The time-travel here is restricted to a couple of decades, so it’s within living memory for much of the readership, and the remainder will be familiar with the era from their exposure to media from it during their own lives.

There are actually three critical pieces of research here: character, plot and period. The author has watched enough episodes to depict the central characters (the Doctor, Amy and Rory) and their behaviour convincingly. The plot is as expected for the type of plot dealt with by the eleventh Doctor. Finally, the period detail is correct. It is over-egged a little in places, though. Instead of being slid in gently as a backdrop, we get very deliberate references to songs, and in particular the protagonist our trio deal with reads a newspaper called The European (d.1998). This latter choice rankles just a little bit, since the protagonist’s character probably would have been an Financial Times reader and – here’s the kicker: no one actually read The European, which is why it folded.

Details, details…

So if you’re writing a story that requires period accuracy, do take great care to research the period in terms of its language, mannerisms, technology, etc. But let the reader’s imagination fill in the blanks once you’ve given them enough to go on. Don’t continue to hit them over the head with the details.

Leave it out…

You don’t need to incorporate all that research you carried out. Ask yourself if it’s relevant to the story. If in doubt, leave it out. If you’re that bothered, write a postscript at the end, or one of these new-fangled ‘questions for book clubs’ sections. If you still find yourself itching to use all that research then maybe you really have become an expert in your field, and you should consider specialising in this area? After I wrote and performed The End of the World Show I was left with masses of material, which I turned into Apocalypse Later and was able to share with a whole new audience.

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