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Monday, November 9, 2009

All in the Name of History

Okay, so I whined about this on a couple other blogs today (sorry!) and then thought, no- this particular topic deserves its very own blog post!

*drum roll*

I hate it, absolutely hate it when historical fiction writers get sloppy. I also hate it in Hollywood, but I take that with a grain of salt because it's, well, Hollywood. For example, the use of coins in Troy- the one with Brad Pitt. (Don't get me started about how Homer's version wasn't good enough so Hollywood had to muck with it.) They didn't have coins in that time period of ancient Greece/Troy. If I recall correctly, coins in the Western world weren't invented until the 6th century BCE- way before the Iliad.


Last night I was looking forward to writing a big chunk of RELUCTANT QUEEN. The scene I'm currently working on is a funeral, one that should be rich and fairly dramatic. But it's set in an obscure pyramid complex, one of them in Saqqara that I've never been to. (Drat that I didn't know I needed to go there last time I was in Egypt!)

So I spent about an hour researching. And then another hour writing. A page.

A page!

ACK! And the whole page is description. Description that will get cut to a couple sentences. But I needed the details right- the layout of the four pyramids (five if you count the cult pyramid within the main pyramid's temple), the inscriptions on the walls, the names of the queens of the smaller pyramids.

Why, you ask, would I need all this? Who really cares?

History nerds like me care! It would be plain lazy of me to make the stuff up. I'm okay with making things up that further the story- characters, scenic details that would affect the plot, and so on. But it would be sloppy of me to make up the queen's names if the historical record had preserved them this long. Although one of them is named Udjebten. And there was another reference to an Ineneh-Inti. And I thought Hatshepsut was a mouthful.

So it dawned on me that if I spend this much time on details (in the name of history) and then cut them (in the name of writing for an audience who doesn't care that there was a guard house to the right of the first causeway ramp), other writers probably do the same thing.

Do you? Just tell me you do so I don't feel so bad. Puh-lease?


Stephanie L. McGee said...

Sorry, Stephanie! I can't imagine writing historical fiction. I don't think I have the patience for all the research. In my writing, I tend to fall on the austere side when it comes to description. I generally, at least the first time around on my current WiP, got comments of "more description." Best of luck!

Stephanie Thornton said...

I thought I had that problem until I read my first draft of HATSHEPSUT. I spent a whole page describing a boat. A boat!


So I chopped it to a couple sentences. I know that's going to happen here too, but at least I earned a few new wrinkles for my brain, right?

I might have earned a glass of wine in the process too. :)

L. T. Host said...

I do a lot of research that never makes it into my books, that's for certain. It's important to have though, for the realism of it all.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Speaking of history, check this out!

All you Egyptophiles and Greekophiles out there should love it!

Amalia T. said...

Actually, I'm notorious (or so I'm told) for lack of description. I've gotten better at it as I've moved forward-- but it took me almost 250,000 words to finally figure out how I really wanted to describe the way the gods traveled from place to place instantaneously. so now I have to go back and put it in where I failed to describe it at all.

Your way is probably better than my way.

Gary Corby said...

Welcome to the reason I started my blog. My advice is, get value for your cut research by posting it. Might make you feel a little bit better.

The invisible stuff does make a difference. It informs the writing which the reader does see.

Matthew Delman said...

Yeah, Gary's historical posts are what got me started on my behind-the-scenes Steampunk research ones.

Laura Martone imparted a formula that 100 pages of research equals 1 one page of narrative. This means that there's a heckuva lot of details you the writer need to know that your readers either don't need or don't care about. And that's what you have to judge.

Faith said...

I recently wrote a short story dealing with an ancient Babylonian festival, and I'm pretty sure I spent more time researching the festival & reigning monarchs around the time period than I did actually writing the story. But, that just means that if someone like me reads it -- trained in Near Eastern archaeology -- they'd know that the details were right and made sense in the context of history, and thus wouldn't be distracted from the story itself.

Correct historical details are critically important, and if a writer chooses to take liberties with them, they can always include a subtle explanation somewhere in the narrative. Honestly, it's rare that an author bothers to figure out what really happened, particularly in the 'ancient' periods... so I say, research is wonderful! And entirely necessary :)

Susan R. Mills said...

I write contemporary fiction, so I don't have to do too much research. But I have written a page of description for my own benefit and then cut it later. I think it helps us write the scene if we can completely visualize it.

Valerie Geary said...

I'm totally opposite. I do some research before hand, but when I'm in the thick of it, I just write. I try not to put airplanes in the 1800s, but if something slips in that I know probably won't make sense to history buffs, I make a note of it and come back to it later. That being said, I don't think there's a right way and I think it's totally okay to write huge long scenes for your own benefit, only to cut them out later. (I've definitely done that!) I also think it's a fantastic idea to put some of that info up on your blog!!! In addition to learning something, people can start getting super excited about the book! :)

Stephanie Thornton said...

Gary- Your blog also gave me the inspiration for my Egyptian history posts. Thanks for the idea!

Faith- Welcome! I love Babylonian history! One day I'd like to write a book set in that time period, but right now I'm focusing just on Egypt.

Amalia- Is the 250,000 word book the one on Helen of Troy? Or a different one?

Thanks everyone, for convincing me I'm not crazy! Or at least, not too crazy!

Steph Damore said...

Hey Steph, I thought of you today while I was watching the history channel and they were talking about how the Egyptians lit the pyramids. Copper mirrors wouldn't work because they were too dim and the light diffused too much, and torches would go out because of the lack of oxygen. Some scholars suggested they used a form of the light bulb and a battery (others were talking about aliens and what not).

The special's called Ancient Aliens
- sounds cheesy I know, but it was really interesting. Check it out if you get a chance!

Oh, and stop by my blog for an award too!

Bane of Anubis said...

Yeah, when you're so close to something, it makes it difficult to know what's acceptable to fudge and what isn't (and, of course, you don't want to fudge anything, but some things can get really difficult if you don't -- e.g., Steph's example of lighting the P-mids).

Stephanie Thornton said...

Ohhh... Thanks Steph! That just gave me an idea for the scene I just wrote. It might not involve aliens, but... :)

I'll check that special out!

Amalia T. said...

A different book. Which could, technically, be considered loosely related to the book on Helen of Troy, since it's kind of the same "new look" mentality, and intended to be set within the same world of history.

The short answer: It's a book about Adam and Eve.

Amalia T. said...

Edit: Also, I have managed to make it a controllable less than 100,000 words now :)

Caroline Starr Rose said...

Thanks for stopping by!

I have to say, I have a necklace with the profile of Nefertiti and love the book, Memoirs of Cleopatra (and as an aside, I loved Memoirs of a Geisha). Egyptian history is amazing.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Caroline- I loved both those books too! Memoirs of a Geisha is actually my all-time favorite book. It's just lush- I love every word in it!


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