Historical Research Writing

While I’m on vacation, I’m going to cheat by porting over posts from my old blogspot site. Today, I recount what is probably the best piece of advice I’ve come across on the subject of researching historical fiction.

Having written earlier about the joys of historical documentaries as well as warnings from the past, it’s natural that I’ve recently turned my attention to historical fiction, as both a reader (expect a new review soon) and a writer. While this may seem like something of a change from the fantasy I usually work on, it’s something I’ve done in the past, and it’s about a historical subject that I’m enthusiastic about and have studied extensively. It’s a pleasure to dive into the research.

And therein lies the trap. It’s something several friends of mine can attest to is a common obstacle when writing historical fiction. That is problem is over-research.

The incentive for research is strong. Many is the time a writer will find themselves raked over the coals by self-declared experts in reviews. There is also often a real urgency to do justice to the subject or the personages involved and be true to their story. But more than that, as with anything that generates enough enthusiasm to write about, an author simply enjoys the research, to lose oneself in the past, as any good historical fiction will do to a reader.

I’ve recently read City of Thieves by David Benioff, one of Game of Thrones’s showrunners. It was an
excellent read and comes highly recommended. One part that struck me the most, however, was not in the main narrative, but in the prologue, in which the author recounts how he learned about what his grandfather did during World War II. After the author has spent a week with his grandfather and a dictaphone, drawing out a flood of recollections from the normally reticent man, he is still agonizing over the details. He wants more out of his grandfather. The exchange goes like this:

“I just want to make sure I get everything right.”
“You won’t”
“This is your story. I don’t want to fuck with it.”
“A couple of things still don’t make sense to me-”
“David,” he said. “You’re a writer. Make it up.”

Truly, this feels like some of the best advice you could get as a writer of historical fiction. When in doubt, don’t forget, you’re a writer. Make it up!