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Historical novels – how much research should you do, what lengths should you go to to get the details and the whole feel right?

I’ve been pondering this as I’ve just read Golden Hill by Francis Spufford, who manages to create what seemed an authentic picture of New York in 1746. How authentic it in fact is I can’t verify, short of doing the research myself. But it certainly worked for me: we learned about the city’s dimensions, architecture, weather, race relations, commerce, justice system, politics, religious observance, card games, Bonfire Night customs, and even its smells. I believed it.

To find all that out must have taken a very long time. But when to stop? Do you draw a line somewhere, and avoid venturing into unknown detail, or do you draw that line and just wing it, hoping that few of your readers will notice any errors in the areas you didn’t delve into? Can you get away with finding out what people ate and wore in your chosen period, and maybe what their houses looked like, and assume that that will so impress your average reader that they believe the rest?

Warning – I’ve recently seen an episode of ‘Lewis’ in which a fraudster who has forged an ancient Greek text is brought low because in it he mentions a constellation that was discovered only in the C17. There’s always an expert out there who will spot these lone errors …

One of the ninevoices has produced a novel set in C18 London. I know she’s done much research, and the detail seems convincing. If the rest of us think we’ve spotted an anachronism we’ve said so, but usually we’re wrong.

I once thought of stepping into these deep waters myself when I started a story set in Bohemia during the Thirty Years War in the C17. It didn’t get beyond the first chapter because my creative writing tutor told me it had too much exposition, too much scene-setting. She was probably right, but I started writing something else instead.

What about the dialogue? Options could include:

  • Having your characters speak in modern-day English, just avoiding obvious anachronisms like ‘Facebook’, ‘celeb’ or ‘infomercial’;
  • Ditto, but with your characters saying ‘Forsooth’, ‘Gadzooks’ and ‘By St Leonard!’ every now and then;
  • Immersing yourself in the literature of the time (more research – when are you actually going to get started?) and trying to replicate at least some of its rhythms and vocabulary?

‘Have at ye, Sirrah!’

Are there rights and wrongs in this field? Advice please.