Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Devil's in the Details

Suzanne Adair (Guest blogger)

Recently, I taught a workshop on researching historical fiction. The workshop provided attendees with tools to conduct primary and secondary research and generate plenty of information. But I cautioned everyone that historical fiction is a tough sell. "The devil's in the details," say agents, editors, and publishers.

Authors often succumb to the temptation to load down their historical manuscripts with minutiae, just to ensure that readers "get" the settings. They also pride themselves on delivering novels with perfect details. The biggest mistake historical authors can make is focusing on all those details. What's the priority of a historical novelist? To spin an enthralling tale. In other words, subordinate facts to the creation of riveting drama and compelling characters. Here's why.

History is a fluid field. Every now and then, a researcher reveals results of years of study -- a new conclusion disproving an old. Such a revelation can collapse the fictional world established by a historical author if the author has relied upon precise facts to carry the book. A novel that lacks riveting drama and compelling characters is thereby reduced to a mess of not-so-accurate details. Excellent story and characterizations propel readers through a novel, hurtle them over any potential speed bumps caused by obsolete details. When a reader says of a historical, "I couldn't put it down!" it means the plot and characters elevated the story past the details, entertained the reader, and made the novel greater than the sum of its parts.

If you're writing a historical, resist the urge to use details for a coup. Instead, keep in mind the basic tools of good writing. Employ details in a supportive capacity only. Let your story flow from your knowledge of what makes a good plot, characters, setting, etc. Whatever your genre -- speculative fiction, western, crime fiction, romance -- you cannot go wrong with riveting drama and compelling characters.

Suzanne Adair ( is the author of Paper Woman, released October 2006, the first novel of a historical suspense series set during the Revolutionary War in the South. Paper Woman is the recipient of the 2007 Patrick D. Smith Literature award, presented by the Florida Historical Society ( The second novel in Adair's series, The Blacksmith's Daughter, is scheduled for a fall 2007 release.

1 comment:

Pauline B Jones said...

You make some great points, Suzanne. Thanks for sharing them!