Weekly Musing: How Much Research is Too Much Research?

For the past few months I have been deep in once again revising a historical fiction novel I’ve been working on and off for years. While I put in months researching before even drafting a single word, with every subsequent draft I’ve found myself continuing to conduct research. At first the research was to ground myself in the history of the events, the people involved, and give myself a general idea of the culture of the time period.

One of the challenges for me with research has been to figure out how to restrain myself from putting in every detail I come across I find interesting. For example, when buttons were introduced in late Middle Ages Europe they caused a minor scandal as clothing was now easier to put on and take off. Another challenge is how much my own pre-conceived notions change from learning the facts. I go into my writing wanting to correct all the relatively little falsehoods I’ve read and seen in movies. But then I realize in order to move the scene along it may very well just be easier to cut corners. I’m sure there is a way of doing it both correctly and in narratively smooth way.

But the biggest challenge is when to know to back off on over research. Getting tripped up over mundane details which no one will care about yet I’ve somehow convinced myself someone out will be paying attention. For example, I got wrapped up in trying to figure out what was the specific breakdown of the late 14th century currency in England for one scene where one character pays a fee to get his brother out of jail. Luckily I stopped myself from taking it further and trying to find a schedule of fees for such a thing because I’m sure it exists in a library collection. This type of research is a waste of time.

I should be focusing my time on are the different types of castles which factor massively into the story as well as armor and weaponry and battle formations. Things such as landscape and other setting details like food, clothing, building materials are important but not as much. These are the types of details a savvy reader are apt to call an author out on for bungling up not if I said 10 pennies made up 1 shilling in 1403 England. Most importantly the research I should be paying attention to are the things which the characters would care about.

What I must constantly tell myself is a phrase I saw a few years ago: “Don’t overdo the research, don’t overthink the research.” See my brain, which is still so used writing research papers, wants to write in a style of throwing in facts. It wars with the artistic side which constantly reminds me what I now work on is fiction written within the confines of history or whatever reality the story is based on. The fiction is what ultimately should win out. Until I somehow get that through my head, the research struggle shall continue and I shall continue to clog my brain up with curiously wonderful facts that maybe I’ll be use to scream out while playing Jeopardy at home.

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