It started off innocently enough. I began to reread one of my favorite Edith Wharton novels to get a sense of nineteenth century speech patterns for use in my own work-in-progress. Somewhere along the way, my research took a turn. A trip to the city’s biggest library and several, several hours latter, I now know more about Victorian carriages, carts, and sleighs than is altogether healthy.
I, for one, love those little gems of historic detail in a novel. But it’s not enough to know that a brougham was a horse-drawn carriage. The fact that it had four wheels and was usually pulled by two horses is surely relevant. It’s popularity as a public coach is noteworthy, as well. Isn’t it?
Embarking on research is a bit like Alice’s decent into the rabbit hole. It’s hard to know when to pull back. Before I know it, I’m immersed in a colorful new world (in this case a 1880s car—er—carriage show). Much of what I learn, however, will prove superfluous when I finally wend my way out.
Just because I find it fascinating that the wealthy drove glass-paned coaches while the open-air surrey wagon was a more economical option for the middle-class (costing between $50-100 in 1900) or that moths would often hide in the folds of the velveteen cushion interior doesn’t mean my reader (or blog audience) will.
Being my first attempt at historical fiction, it’s difficult to know where to draw the line. Cumbersome details are easily excised from a manuscript in the revision process. For me, the troubles lies in the forefront—the time (the copious time) spent collecting those details. I feel like I could research forever.
But then my novel would wallow uncompleted forever.
I get stuck in the minutia of everyday life too—agonizing over a decision, scrutinizing products whose only difference is the brand name printed on the box, folding the dinner napkins into intricate pieces of artwork only to have my guest unceremoniously plop them in their lap.
Sometimes the devil’s in the details; sometimes the devil is the details!
The trick is finding the balance, knowing when to put the library book down and just start writing. I want to transport my readers into Victorian American. I want them to feel the sway of the carriage and hear its springs wine over the bumpy road. I want them to luxuriate in plush baby-blue upholstery, to pull back from winter’s chill nipping their cheeks through the open side-curtains and inch their toes toward the charcoal warmer at their feet.
But let’s not get carried away…