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How much is enough?

Novels are often criticised for their lack of research, a laziness on the part of the author. Which begs the question, how much is enough? I always imagine a stone-faced historian peering over my shoulder while I’m writing, and his scornful look at my audacity.

Hollywood has always revealed a shameless disregard for history, a fact which incenses many scholars. But from a novelist’s point of view this apparent heresy is understandable. Fiction is first and foremost an exercise in creativity. The very act of inventing characters and situations for them to perform in requires a suspension of disbelief in the reader.

But the subject of authenticity cannot be avoided altogether. Even if you create a fantasy world with no connection to reality whatsoever, you still have to know that world inside out in order to be convincing – and to avoid continuity errors that might result in your masterwork being hurled across the room in frustration!

Historical novels are often written by scholars who’ve spent years researching their subject. Their knowledge is extensive, and the fine detail weaved in brings the period and the story to life. But sometimes research can have the opposite effect and end up boring or confusing the reader.

The trick is to use enough to establish the period and the setting, then let the characters do the rest. In the end, your knowledge of your subject will come across, regardless of how much you choose to omit from the final draft.

My fourth novel, Indigo Blue, is set in California in 1939. To authenticate the period and the main characters’ background, I had to research the Hollywood film industry and the areas the stars lived in. This was a pleasure, as the subject has been one of lifelong interest.

Sailing also features as a key element, so I had to do what I could to bring this aspect to life without having to charter a yacht for six months; oddly enough, I come from a yachting family but get seasick at the mere thought of being out on the ocean!

I’ve also started writing short stories again, and some of these have become mini epics, requiring almost as much research as a novel! There’s something appealing about the limited word count, and the diversity of material that’s available. I intend to publish a volume of 12 short (and not so short) stories early next year.

In the end it comes down to you, the author. Fiction gives you a free hand to do pretty much as you please, and you’re really only limited by your own imagination. But you have to be prepared for the experts to come leaping out of the shadows, eager to confront you with the ‘facts’ you’ve overlooked. That’s what makes the whole thing so irresistibly challenging.

‘Publish and be damned’ is a quote attributed to the Duke of Wellington, in response to the courtesan Harriette Wilson’s threat to include him in her memoirs. But it can also be adopted by authors, impressed by its spirit of defiance, and the opportunity such a bold move might create to reach a new audience.

So go-ahead … What’s stopping you?

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