The Productivity Burden of Historical Fiction

This post originally appeared on www.writeitdownith.com. Thanks, Downith.

I’ve been wondering lately, whether writing historical fiction takes longer than what I’ll call ‘regular’ fiction. And, if that’s the case, am I at a disadvantage in this world where writers face so much competition and publishers want writers who will produce a body of work at a clip of one new manuscript a year.

Downith recently posted her FTF photo, which inspired me to focus harder than usual that day and finish rewriting part one of an earlier manuscript. I worked from 8am to 3:30pm, a decent stretch by my standards but not unusual. One of my scrawls on a working copy of this manuscript said ‘describe the ship’ referring to a ship my main characters took to France in 1936.

This scrawl necessitated a deep dive to discover the names of ships Canadian veterans took for the Vimy Ridge war memorial dedication ceremony and then subsequent probing for a picture from which I could write the following two sentences:

“The Antonia’s dark blue hull and freshly painted white decks promised comfort, her huge red funnel promised a maximum speed of fifteen knots. Edward had secured one of five hundred cabins, knowing that Ann would suffer severe seasickness if he booked third class accommodation.”

http://www.simplonpc.co.uk/Cunard3.html#anchor1293818

44 words, roughly 40 minutes of searching and 5 minutes crafting sentences.

I’ve listened to published authors talk about their daily word count targets. Some expect 3000 words per day; others are less ambitious at 2000 a day. Let’s set the day at 6 hours. Doing the math, a writer needs to create 8.4 words a minute to accomplish 3000 or a little over 5 words a minute to accomplish 2000. In my little example above, I was cranking out 1 word per minute.

You can see the problem, can’t you?

And, that was an easy bit of historical research. Try writing a battle scene or a scene using dialogue to outline the causes of World War One without sounding like they are lifted from non-fiction sources.

I will be the first to admit that many scenes require very little research – sex scenes come to mind – but the added challenge for a writer of historical fiction to include historically accurate, deftly crafted scenes is a weighty one.

Perhaps I should learn to sleep less?

FOR MORE ON READING & WRITING HISTORICAL FICTION follow A WRITER OF HISTORY (using the widget on the left sidebar)

M.K. Tod writes historical fiction and blogs about all aspects of the genre at A Writer of History. Her latest novel, TIME AND REGRET was published by Lake Union on August 16, 2016. Mary’s other novels, LIES TOLD IN SILENCE and UNRAVELLED are available from Amazon, NookKoboGoogle Play and iTunes. She can be contacted on Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads or on her website www.mktod.com.

10 thoughts on “The Productivity Burden of Historical Fiction”

  1. I don’t think HF takes longer to write, since if I wanted to write an FBI thriller, I’d have to do mounds of research, but we do bear the burden of “accuracy”. It seems that many can suspend their belief to watch procedural dramas like CSI or Criminal Minds, and read thrillers written by Grisham, Brown, et al, but a costume drama or a work of historical fiction brings out pitchforks.

    Perhaps it’s because History is always taught as a weighty subject in school, and Historians are frequently seen as hoary, disheveled men who spend their days surrounded by books and research notes (hence the furor over “pretty” and “frothy” female historians like Amanda Foreman and Amanda Vickery), that Historical Fiction is held to such high standards. Based on the frightful weeks I’ve spent researching just the Battle of the Somme, I can now understand the many authors of historical romance who prefer just a flavor of their time period (and their readers who don’t read for pages of historical description–they just want a good book!).

    1. Hi Evangeline … I can totally identify with the Somme battle problem! And we do have to be accurate rather than hinting at the flavours. Perhaps we should trade notes?

  2. Hi 🙂
    Historical fiction is somewhat a new field for me. I never thought I would write it, and then I looked back and realized that at least half of my reading habits were focused on – wide ranging periods of – historical fiction (and the other half on Sci Fi, which to me is a sort of history of the future).

    I believe the burden of research can be equally heavy for other fields, but few are so exposed to control and check like historical fiction. As noted above by Evangeline Holland, suspension of disbelief seems more willingly applied to other genres.

    On the other hand…I couldn’t write anything, historical or not, if I wasn’t sure of my details 🙂
    I suppose the burden of research is in a tight relation with the writer’s scruples: the more the latter, the heavier the burden 😀

    1. Thanks for your comment. I like your perspective on writer’s scruples. Do you think that the more information that’s available about a particular period of time, the more readers are likely to be critical of any inaccuracies? PS – need to find out why your blog is called deadmachinery 🙂

      1. In reply to your question: yes 🙂 But also, it depends on the reader. Suspension of disbelief is more willingly given when inaccuracies are minor (this shape of chamber pot, or that shape of chamber pot? Not that relevant). But a glaring mistake (such as in traveling time, for example: coaches are not as fast as trains! Which I’m sure you know, but someone I read recently clearly didn’t), even to not well informed readers, may be book-breaking.

        As a reader, I rarely check factual info, unless I get the knee-jerk reaction: ‘that’s impossible’. Surely, if I read something I know it’s inaccurate, I form an opinion about the writer which may not be too favourable.

        Being Italian, I’m very much irritated every time I come across a mis-use of my mother tongue language: even a simple Google check will correct it, if there’s no mother tongue available.

        As to the name of my blog 🙂 It comes from a Kurt Vonnegut’s quotation and full answer here: http://deadmachinery.wordpress.com/2010/06/15/a-tad-on-the-macabre-side/

  3. My apologies, the cat walked on the keyboard and submitted the comment before I was done 🙂 the name of my blog comes from a Vonnegut’s quotation and the subtitle (Dreaming Twigs) from a Gaston Bachelard’s quote.

    It’s a tad twisted, but I liked it 😀

  4. […] With no requirement to research a particular historical time period in order to effectively capture its culture, values, politics, events, language, fashion and so on, writing contemporary fiction is a more straightforward process. Don’t get me wrong. There is still a need for research but in my case it’s confined to topics like ‘waterfront bars in Boston’, or ‘loft styles in New York city’, or ‘the election cycle for US senators’. (If you’re interested, I’ve writing about the productivity burden of historical fiction.) […]

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