How much research does one do for a book that is set in a time period removed from one’s own? If you do too much, you run the risk of letting history take over the story. In addition, you can spend so much time doing research that the book itself languishes. But if you do too little, you run the risk of being historically inaccurate. Yes, it is quite a fine line.
Here’s how I handled it when writing The Lost Son (working title), the novel I’m currently finishing, set in Germany and the US between 1924 and 1945.
I did a fair amount of background reading to get a feel for the eras, a couple of general World War II histories, a couple of books set in 1940’s New York, a couple of books about living in Germany during the rise of Hitler and especially Hitler youth (one of my characters is a reluctant Hitler youth member). I also read magazines and newspapers from the early forties in the US, just to get a sense of current events and pop culture during the time. But I really love history (I could have been a history major in college but that is another story) and realized that I could keep researching forever. So I finally decided I had a good enough sense of the time to finally just plunge into the novel.
During the revision process, however, I kept a notebook with me at all times in which I kept a running list of questions that kept coming up. What kinds of magazines would a German teenager read? What kinds of jobs were there for people who worked in breweries? What did the breweries do when Prohibition came along? What were some famous department stores in Munich in the early 1900’s? The list of questions ended up encompassing several pages of the notebook.
After the first whole-novel revision I spent several days on the internet researching all those questions. Like I said, I love history and I love web surfing, so I had an absolute blast. I managed to get answers to all the questions and then, for the next revision, went about adding them to the relevant parts of the story.
So the story unfolded completely under its own steam. It did not serve history but later, history served it. This seems to me the best way to write something that is not necessarily meant to be “historical fiction,” but that does take place during a completely different historical period from one’s own.
Something I read in I’m teaching in my Creative Nonfiction Class this semester, Telling True Stories, really drives this home. Mark Kramer writes: “Do just enough research to orient yourself, then do most of your reporting. Save most of the research for late in the reporting procss. At that point you only have to find the right information for your story. If you research too early, you have to find out everything” (27).
Right now, I’m reading for my next project, a creative nonfiction book that takes place in the nineteen seventies and eighties. I lived during that era, so you might think I don’t need to do much research. But the truth is, I’m still doing a lot of background reading to get a real feel for the period. After all, it was a long time ago. The memory often needs a little jog.
How about you? How do you achieve historical accuracy without slowing down or overencumbering your story?