Friday Five-0: How much research is enough?
I’m writing a novel that takes place in Mongolia in 1852. Of course, I wasn’t alive in 1852 and I’ve never been to Mongolia. Every time I sit down to write, I imagine a sea of Mongolian scholars who might one day pick apart every historical inaccuracy I am inevitably committing to the page. I’ve studied the period and place, but I feel that I need to become a true Mongolia scholar in order to write this novel with any authority. Is that true?
No. It’s not true that you have to become a scholar. But it is true that Mongolia scholars—if they get their hands on your novel—will pick it apart for inaccuracies. But that’s only because Mongolia scholars are notorious nitpickers. (Although Papua New Guinea scholars are even worse.)
Fortunately, the grand majority of people who read your book—I’d go so far as to say 99.9999%—won’t know nearly as much about Mongolia as you’ve learned in your research. And 100% of them (I would think) weren’t alive in 1852 either. So you don’t have to get every detail absolutely right.
When I was getting my MFA, the British author Jim Crace visited and did a brief residency. He writes wonderful books, many of them in set in far-flung or completely imagined times and places: The Gift of Stones is set in Stone Age Europe. The Pesthouse takes place in a post-apocalyptic, American-esque landscape. Quarantine imagines Jesus’s 40 days of fasting in the desert.
At the time, I was writing a novel set primarily in New York the 1930s and 40s. And while I had done some research, I had the same concerns as you: I worried that I wouldn’t be able to pull it off, not having lived in that time and place, and that angry, elderly New Yorkers might even show up and egg my house.
So I cornered Mr. Crace at a cocktail party and asked him—of Quarantine, specifically—what kind of research he did for the book. The details of clothing and food and culture and ritual were so specific, so real-seeming, that I was sure he must have put in hours of reading, and perhaps consulted with archaeologists or biblical scholars.
I was floored. We were allowed to do that? We could just—pardon my French—make shit up?
As it turns out, yes. We can. Because we’re not scholars, we’re fiction writers. Our objective is to create a sustained illusion for our readers—a fictional world for them to live in and care about for a few hundred pages.
If you want that world (as you do and as I did) to closely resemble an actual time and place, then of course, you'll want to draw on real-life facts. But you don't need to provide nearly as much detail as you might think. In fact, too much will feel forced and may actually detract from your authority. All you need is enough background, enough detail, to sketch the outlines. Your readers' imaginations will fill in the rest.
And don't get so distracted by reality (or research itself, which can become a form of procrastination) that you forget what’s truly important: telling a compelling story. Making the characters live and breathe. Making your reader want to keep turning pages.
Finally, if all of the above isn’t enough to boost your confidence, remember: As novelists, we also have the blessed opportunity to include an “Author’s note” in our books, where we can say whether or not we’ve taken liberties with dates / events / etc., or explain that we’ve done our best to portray an accurate picture of the place and time in the book but apologize in advance for any inaccuracies.
Some cranky Mongolia scholar may still send you an irate email because you have a scene where a character is described as eating goat meat, when everybody knows that in 1852 a blight killed all of the goats in the particular region of Mongolia where that scene is set.
But, honestly, who cares?
One more thing: please tell me when your novel is published. I've always been fascinated by Mongolia, and I can't wait to get a glimpse of it.