Front Page, Musings

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.

Book Reviews, Front Page

Scribbling Scrivener Reads: The Fifth Avenue Artists Society by Joy Callaway

The Fifth Avenue Artists Society by Joy Callaway is an historical fiction novel set in New York City’s Gilded Age. It’s Callaway’s debut novel and is told through the eyes of Virginia Loftin better known as Ginny. Her family is highly artistic with each of her sisters, except one who’s a teacher, and her brother engaged in some sort of artistic pursuit. Ginny is a writer, one sister is a pianist, one sister is a milliner to New York’s high society, and her brother is a painter but works as a salesman. Over the course of two years the reader follows Ginny as she not pursues her dream of being a professional writer and becoming involved with a group of other artists but also the two men she loves: one her lifelong best friend Charlie, an illustrator, and John Hopper, the leader of the Fifth Avenue Artists Society.

What drew me to pick up the book was the title. Thinking the book would be about the artists society led me to believe it would primarily be Ginny exploring the beauty and pain of creativity and the high probability of drama a group of fellow creative types is bound to bring. That and the fact the main character was a writer although I tend to stay away from books where the main character is a writer. In my opinion it’s a little too convenient when a writer writes about a writer. But I gave this one a chance because of the artists society aspect.

Unfortunately the book wasn’t about the artists society or art. Instead it’s a rather poorly constructed love triangle with two underdeveloped love interests and a grating main character. Her first love Charlie literally shows up at convenient plot points and exits just as quick serving only to moan on and on about how he made a mistake. I have no idea why she loves him other than they grew up together. Ginny’s other love interest, John, is slightly more developed, however, his characterization is inconsistent and her wishy washy feelings toward him gets old very fast. For someone who supposedly wants a husband who will be supportive of her writing career she seems to not care when John demonstrates genuine support. She waffles between independent-woman-who-don’t-need-no-man to wanting nothing more than to be married. While I’m not opposed to romance or a book focusing on it, something not completely uncommon in historical fiction, why it bugged me in The Fifth Avenue Artists Society was how much Ginny and her sisters vacillate. Also, the way all the romances were developed felt forced and inorganic.

Actually pretty much everything in this book was forced and inorganic. The plot was forced and I had a giant problem with a plot twist thrown in toward the last third of the book. It didn’t make sense at all and comes out of left field. Yes, there are a few subtle hints to suggest something is afoot, but it doesn’t come across as natural. Also it throws off the tone of the book. It goes from a fluff, Little Women-esque piece to dark and serious which it fails at. Perhaps it fails because one of the people involved in the plot twist is a character who is in the background in one scene very early in the book.Or because the book is told through Ginny’s eyes she wasn’t there for the event which prompts the twist.

As I alluded to above, I had problems with the characters, in particular Ginny. Like so much of this book, her decisions and actions felt forced. I found her even more irritating after the plot twist. Without spoiling anything, I was incredibly angry with her as she couldn’t understand why her family was justifiably angry with a member of their family involved with the twist. She was mad at them for not understanding the possible other side of things yet she refused to see things from their point of view. All of the supporting characters are one dimensional and are shoehorned into the novel. There are a lot of them as Ginny comes from a large family and with virtually everyone paired off it adds more players to the mix. I don’t know if there was some restriction put onto Callaway by her editor or publisher, but there needed to be more room in the novel to develop the characters.

Since this is historical fiction, I’ll touch about the feeling of accuracy I got from the book. While Callaway certainly did her research, she mentions in her acknowledgements a bulk of the book is based upon her ancestors and includes some documents from her family’s history, the language used and attitudes of the characters comes across as period inappropriate. They didn’t feel modern, just not 1890s middle class and not from people whom frequently hobnob with the upper crust of New York society. Oddly enough it felt more like the 1920s in how people spoke and acted. I guess Callaway decided since all the characters are artists they aren’t going to act in line with societal norms. That’s fine. Believe me I don’t want or need cookie cutter and get tired of seeing characters fall into supposed norms in historical, it was just…off. But the way the characters dressed, the architecture of the time period, and other setting details felt very authentic. Callaway also references a lot of plays, pieces of music, popular authors and books, literary magazines, publishers, and historical figures the Loftin family would possibly have interacted with, and painters popular at the time.

Overall, though, I found The Fifth Avenue Artists Society by Joy Callaway to be disappointing. The characters weren’t compelling or consistent and the plot was boring and nonsensical at the end. On a scale of one to five pencils I’m giving it one and half pencils.

Book Reviews

Scribbling Scrivener Reads: A Lasting Impression by Tamera Alexander

A Lasting Impression by Tamera Alexander is a historical fiction novel primarily set in Nashville’s Belmont Mansion shortly after the Civil War. We follow Claire Laurent as she has to suddenly flee New Orleans for Nashville. She arrives with virtually nothing to her name other than showing signs of promising artistic talent. It’s her talent that is at the center of the story as her father owned an art gallery in New Orleans. Not everything they sold was on the up and up as he used his wife and later daughter to create copies and forgeries of famous artists. However upon her arrival in Nashville, Claire no longer wishes to engage in forgeries and desires to paint her own work.

After spending her first night in a church she happens to overhear a conversation between two of the church’s parishioners about open interviews at Belmont Mansion. Sensing this is her way to earn a living she is determined to go to the interviews. With a little help of an introduction by the church’s Reverend, she gets an interview. The rest of the book spends the time following Claire’s journey as she wrestles with her past and to reconcile it with her present and future.

I picked this book for a couple of reasons. The first being it’s been a while since I’ve read historical fiction and I missed it. The second being on a recent vacation to Nashville I happen to tour the mansion and picked up this book and another one set in Belmont Mansion.

My reaction to A Lasting Impression is rather mixed. What I enjoyed the best was since I’ve actually been to the mansion it was easy for me to see the details Alexander does a great job of including in the book. I could even very easily see the exterior and grounds even though Belmont Mansion is surrounded by Belmont University. I think Alexander’s attention to the setting was one of the strengths of the book. She also does a great job bringing out all five senses which as a writer is an area I struggle with. The time period is as rich and vivid as Belmont Mansion.

Another thing I liked about the book is the premise. I enjoyed reading a book set in a city other than New York or London. I appreciated Claire being a painter and hoping to become self-sufficient with especially in a time period where a woman’s options were very limited. Her main goal is to survive and evade her father’s business partner rather than catch some guy’s eye. Along the way that obviously happens because what would a novel like this be without that?

Overall I thought the characters were okay. As mentioned earlier, Claire is rather unique in many respects. I liked she wanted to make her own way in life. However it wasn’t until the love interest, Sutton Monroe, steps in at the end does it start to become more of a tangible possibility. Claire grated on me frequently because no matter how much she wanted to reveal the truth of her background, she doesn’t until forced to at the end. A whole lot of guilt could have been avoided. She lies for months apparently distracted by the near fairy-tale world she lives in at Belmont.

While Claire is the focal point, we do get a few chapters in Sutton Monroe’s point-of-view. I felt he was rather dull and, at times, kind of a jerk. Not toward Claire, but he has a few odd thoughts I found off putting and questioned if I was allowing my modern reader brain to cloud my judgement. It’s a possibility. His chapters also felt like they were there to provide more of the romantic aspect to the story. While I applaud the author for showing the development of romantic feelings from the male’s point-of-view, the style in which he was written was too close to how Claire was written. What I mean by this is instead of sounding like two different people with their own unique voices both come across as similar.

The supporting characters were cookie cutter and fit a lot of stereotypes I had a hard time excusing. Adelicia Acklen, the real-life builder and owner of Belmont Mansion, comes across as the typical strong-willed woman far ahead of her time. This is a trope I see a lot in historical fiction. Other supporting characters from the servants to name dropping real life members of Nashville society to other fictional characters, everyone is just there. The story suffers from a lack of a real villain. Not that all stories need a flesh and blood villain. Certainly the biggest villain can be ourselves which I think is truly Claire’s biggest villain. But the one “villain” of the book isn’t developed and makes an appearance at the beginning and end.

Which segue ways into one of the main issues I had with the book. Claire has this huge secret and there is a person in Nashville who can expose her, yet the “villain” waits until the last quarter of the book to confront her. Keep in mind he waited more than six months of them both being in the same town to contact her and despite knowing Claire’s employer is one of the most well-known and powerful people in Nashville. It felt like the author forgot all about these details to focus more on developing the romance between Claire and Sutton. Then the ending had to be written and a major plot point had to be wrapped up and thus we get the villain at the end.

My biggest problems with A Lasting Impression come from the author employing several pet peeves I have as a reader. The biggest one being an overwhelming need to emphasize certain words for no reason. And this wasn’t a device used sparingly or just for certain characters. Page after page contained at least three words emphasized no matter who was talking. As a reader it feels too much like the author telling me which words should have added meaning. Or to show me a speaking pattern? I’m not sure the point. Also, no one talks that way. Ever.

Another device employed by Alexander is telling the reader over and over again who people are in relation to the character. Yes, I understand that Cara Netta is Sutton’s kind of girlfriend. I got that the first time you told me. Yes, I understand Claire’s father told her she had no talent. Remember that scene you gave me at the beginning? I don’t need dozens of reminders even though I know it constantly weighs upon her mind. It’s as if the author doesn’t trust the audience to recall who people are.

Overall, A Lasting Impression was enjoyable but the combination of a rushed ending, main characters who sounded too much alike, and a lot of my pet peeves being utilized knocked down the rating to three pencils out of five.