Perversely, I disliked studying history in school. In those years (a time now qualifying as “historical”) we memorizes names and dates. Yawn! Today I find researching a new project an exciting part of the creative process. I don’t just investigate an event itself, but also surrounding details: What did people eat and wear? What were the setting’s landmarks? What worldwide happenings affected ordinary lives?
It’s not uncommon for my research notes to be longer than the final manuscript. So, here’s the artistic dilemma: How much historical information should I include in the fictional work itself? After all, I’m not writing a monograph, but a creative work starring character and plot. Too much detail stalls the narrative. Yet I need enough to give fiction the authenticity of fact (and prevent anachronisms or other bloopers). I’ve framed this question in terms of historical fiction, but it applies equally well to writing about contemporary settings.
Here’s my answer: Follow the “five percent rule.” Essentially, about one-twentieth of the research makes it into the finished narrative. For example, On the Shore (Vine Leaves Press, 2017) is about an immigrant Jewish family on New York’s Lower East Side during the First World War. One character grew up in a shtetl in Austria before coming to America. I researched shtetl life at the turn of the century extensively, but all I included were the experiences he carried to his new country.
Ask yourself these questions when deciding which information (not) to use:
(1) Does it enrich the character? Period details like the following can reveal something about a person: the clothes worn to impress a friend, the popular song a parent teaches a child, an architectural feature noticed at a moment calm or stress. A detail that is useless is the name of every other station on the 41 stops of the D train from 205th Street in the Bronx to Coney Island in Brooklyn (unless your character is obsessed with subway routes).
(2) Does it further the plot? When I begin my research, I know the time and place I want to write about and the general story arc. Details anchor and flesh these out. However, in addition to story driving research, it works the other way around; research adds unexpected elements to the narrative. For example, A Brain. A Heart. The Nerve. (Alternative Book Press, 2018) is a fictional biography of the midget who played the munchkin coroner in The Wizard of Oz. When I learned that Henry Ford employed ten midgets in the Willow Run bomber plant during WWII because they were small enough to buck rivets from inside the wings, I had the protagonist travel cross-country to see if he wanted the job. That sparked an insight about the kind of work he truly aspired to do. So a detail not only furthered the plot, it became a turning point. I included a few facts about rivets, but their circumference and metallic composition were unnecessary.
(3) Does it immerse readers in the period? Now and then, I allow myself some leeway beyond what is strictly relevant to character or plot if that detail transports readers to a different time and place. Sensory details work well here. What was the air quality in a city fueled by coal? What squeaks and crackles emanated from an old radio? How did a tenement hallway smell?
(4) Is it too good to leave out? This is tricky. It’s hard to resist including an exceedingly delicious fact (like passing up dessert when you’re stuffed), so a wee indulgence is allowed. However, as Arthur Quiller-Couch advised in 1914, sometimes you have to “murder your darlings.” A jewel to you may be an annoying pebble in a reader’s shoe. Honest feedback from people you trust is essential here. If they say OK, nibble away. If they give a firm “No,” decline the tempting tidbit.
This does not mean all your background work was in vain. What I don’t use in the piece that initiated the research isn’t wasted. I share it with readers who, like me, find such details intriguing in their own right. I have a “Learn history through fiction” series at Ann S. Epstein Writer on Facebook and Twitter; entries on my website blog; and for more depth, a website feature called “Behind the Story."
In addition, there’s the possibility that some unused gem will evolve into a new story or book. For example, the shtetl years of the immigrant in On the Shore became a stand-alone story “Nuts in the Hole.” Conversely, excess material from the story about the stork derby became the novel I just finished, Nine in Ten. Likewise, my story about the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire was expanded into my forthcoming novel Tazia and Gemma (Vine Leaves Press, 2018).
Of course, even if I don’t continue to chew on a morsel, perhaps one of my “behind the story” readers will. Perhaps it will be you ...?