Leave Out the Iceberg
It’s good to be back on your blog, Kelly-Lynne. Thanks for inviting me to post about doing research for my historical novel, Stolen.
Historical fiction authors generally love research – or we wouldn’t be writing historical fiction! It’s fascinating to discover how people lived in the past, what they ate, how they dressed, how they entertained themselves before radio, T.V. and, of course, the Internet; how they worked, spoke, were educated, or learned from each other — even the songs they sang.
Sometimes it’s hard to know where to start. But it’s even harder to know where to stop! It’s scary how easy it is to get sidetracked when researching. For instance, while writing Stolen I learned that Londoners often wore shoes with upright slats attached to the soles to raise their feet out of the mud. Then I learned that during a rainstorm, mud often boiled up between the cracks of the cobblestone streets.
So then I wanted to know more about those shoes, and whether they were related in any way to the raised shoes Geisha wore, how big a problem mud actually was in seventeenth century London, how cobblestones were put together, and who first figured it out!
I almost forgot to work on my novel! Research was easier than creating storyline or bringing my characters to life.
It’s tempting to put every little fact you discover into your book. But just because it’s interesting to you doesn’t mean it fits your story. You don’t want to create a novel where historical fiction is bogged down in historical fact.
As Ernest Hemingway once said, “You have to learn the iceberg to write about the tip.” What he leaves unsaid is that including the whole iceberg in your narrative is a bore. In more modern terms, the advice might be, “Don’t dump data!”
It’s a bit like writing background information for a character. I do this all the time — imagine them as children, make notes about their parents, friends, home life, appearance, likes and dislikes, old love interests, relationship to food and money, etc., etc. And when I feel I know them well, I put them into my narrative without mentioning all of this. I know them. It affects how I write about them. The details matter because they bring the character alive to me; I don’t need to spell them all out in the narrative.
Travel is my favourite kind of research, but I’m not one of the lucky few who travel on arts’ grants or research funds or even advances from publishers. Usually, my ideas come when I travel somewhere for reasons that have nothing to do with writing. Woe betide me if I come home, start writing, and wish I could go back to check on details in a specific locale. My budget just doesn’t stretch that far!
Stolen came to be because, by coincidence, I traveled to both Morocco and Devon, England within the space of two years, after not having traveled much at all for the past twenty. When I discovered a connection between the two places, as far back as the seventeenth century, I began to do more research, and a story took form. In Morocco, I had visited the underground caves where the Christian slaves were imprisoned; in Devon, a friend showed me the passages, tunnels and coves where British pirates docked and smuggled their ill-gotten gains during the same time period. When I learned that Barbary corsairs from North Africa raided villages along the Devon coast, also in the seventeenth century, and carried Britons back to the slave markets of Morocco, the idea of a story about a young woman who loses her parents to a raid, and then sets about trying to find them came to be.