As writers of historical fiction, we might be tempted to believe our job is to teach readers about a certain event or era. While that might be part of what we’re doing, I would argue it’s not the most important part. The number one job of a fiction writer is to tell a story. A history textbook tells about history, but historical fiction should bring it to life by showing it. That’s our true mandate. It’s the difference between reading a menu and eating the meal.
But historical fiction doesn’t make this easy. Sometimes facts and figures need to be included; there are real events and people to take into account.
The thing we’re striving for in fiction is authenticity. We want our work to have the ring of truth to it. To that end, research is crucial. If we don’t do our research as historical fiction writers, we lose credibility with our readers. But researching comes with its own pitfalls. Information is dry and boring to read. The trouble is, we authors can get pretty fired up about our research. It’s cool stuff, plus we’ve worked hard to find it. The temptation is to use as much of it as we can. Indeed, the more research we’ve done, the more strongly we’ll feel about this.
But there’s a good chance that, for the sake of the story, a sizable amount of our research will never make it into the novel. We need to make our peace with that because research can easily get in the way of good storytelling. We’ll want to find a way to weave our research into the story seamlessly.
If we don’t, we’re likely to end up with an info-dump.
The Dreaded Infodump
An infodump is an extended section of telling (rather than showing), a chunk of information that is “dumped” into the reader’s lap.
Introducing readers to a historical era, explaining the political situation or a technical procedure—these are difficult things to do. The infodump makes it easy. You simply take a couple of pages—or an entire chapter—and explain it. This is why infodumps often show up either in prologues or first chapters. The author explains all the important bits to the reader up front before starting the story.
While an infodump might tell us about the world of the story, it doesn’t do anything to develop character, it doesn’t advance the plot, and it doesn’t really help the reader because usually there’s so much information crammed into one section, the reader won’t remember it. And it’s not presented in scene. It’s presented as information. Those are the moments in a story when a reader’s mind wanders.
Readers want to be immersed in the moment of the story. They want to feel like they’re standing beside our main character experiencing all the exciting things alongside them.
Infodumps also fail to create an emotional reaction in the reader. Most infodumps are written in a way that is cold and flat. When we fail to engage a reader’s emotions, we fail to engage the reader.
To Avoid This Kind of Writing:
- Look for anything that isn’t happening in the present moment of the story. Have a close look at your sections of exposition. Backstory and world-building are common offenders.
- Figure out what needs to be explained only at that moment. Ask yourself: what does the reader need to know right now? If they don’t need to know it now, cut it, and save it for when they do.
- Trust your reader. They can piece things together; in fact, they like figuring things out. That’s part of the process of discovery involved in reading.
- If you’re unsure of whether you’ve given the reader enough information, try it out on someone. But beware of going from zero to overload if your reader asks for more information. Often, a subtle hint is all that’s needed.
Incorporating Research into a Scene
There are a few tricks we can use to weave research into a story as seamlessly as possible:
- Integrate it into the scene. Make it relevant to something that’s happening in the moment. That way, it moves the plot forward.
- Add tension. Make the information something that causes problems for the characters. Show their reaction. This engages the reader. If the information matters to the characters, it will matter to the reader.
- Write it in such a way that it conveys something about a character’s personality. Then it adds to character development.
- Keep it brief. A sentence or two of information is enough.
- Break it up. Don’t stick all your information in one spot. Sprinkle it throughout a scene. Remember, the story comes first.
Use Your Research Elsewhere
There will always be a difference between the amount of research we do for a historical novel and the amount that makes it into the book. But why not use that extra information in other ways?
- Write some non-fiction pieces about the things you discovered while researching your novel. This is also a great way to generate some additional buzz for your work.
- Add the additional research to your website or on social media for readers who want to know more.
- Get creative: turn your facts into a trivia game or add them to presentations when you’re promoting your work.
Research is never a waste of time. Even if it doesn’t make it into the novel, it will show in subtle ways. The more we read about the world we’re building, the more we internalize it, and that is guaranteed to lend authenticity to our work.
Michelle Barker is an award-winning author, editor, and writing teacher who lives in Vancouver, BC. Her newest novel My Long List of Impossible Things, came out in 2020 with Annick Press. It was a finalist for the Vine Awards and is a Junior Library Guild gold standard selection. She is the author of The House of One Thousand Eyes, which was named a Kirkus Best Book of the Year and won numerous awards including the Amy Mathers Teen Book Award. She’s also the author of the historical picture book, A Year of Borrowed Men, as well as the fantasy novel, The Beggar King, and a chapbook, Old Growth, Clear-Cut: Poems of Haida Gwaii. Her fiction, non-fiction and poetry have appeared in literary reviews around the world.
Michelle holds an MFA in creative writing from UBC and has been a senior editor at The Darling Axe since its inception, though she’s been editing and teaching creative writing for decades. She loves working closely with writers to hone their manuscripts and discuss the craft.