I generally try to write my historical fiction in an aura of its time period. What I mean by that is that I purposefully try not to hit my readers over the head with too much detail because I don’t want my book to breech into textbook land where you feel more like you are reading to learn and less like you are reading to be entertained. Don’t get me wrong, there should be learning going on, but that shouldn’t be the book’s main focus.
It’s got me thinking, though, about what is preferred in the publishing industry. World-building is extremely important in historicals because you are removing your reader from their present world and submerging them into the past. But does your reader need to know what the name of a button on a dress was in 1492, or exactly how high a high heel was in 1780? Or does it suffice to call a button a button and say your character is wearing heels (no matter what height).
This thought has been on my mind as I write through my new work in progress, LADY OF THE REVOLUTION. Like most of my work, this story takes place in France during the French Revolution. There are a lot of little details about the events and timeline of the Revolution, and I realized that I was skipping over some events to highlight others. It occurred to me that maybe this was wrong of me to do, but at the same time, I thought back to the other books I’ve read about the French Revolution, and I realized that they do the same things. So in this situation, fudging time doesn’t seem so out of place.
But when it comes down to other details like clothing and utensils and exactly what sort of glue was used to keep wallpaper up — are these necessarily as important? Take Phillipa Gregory for a moment. Never have I felt like she hit me over the head with too much detail. In particular, I remember a scene in THE OTHER BOEYLN GIRL, where Anne and her sister are checking each other’s hair for lice — this, to me, seemed like a great inclusion of detail that we might forget. But Gregory doesn’t go too far by describing the kind of lice of that time, or what sort of comb they used…you get the point.
Currently, I am reading a book titled MISTRESS OF THE REVOLUTION by Catherine Delors. While I love the book, I think sometimes I am drowning in sudden, detailed information. In certain circumstances, I even have to stop reading the book to do some researching, which isn’t so bad in all cases, but can sometimes be tedious.
So, I want to know what you think. Do you enjoy a historical when it has more details throughout the book, or do you enjoy it more when the details are fewer and blend into the rhythm? Do details make a historical better than another, or can the book stand independently, regardless of how many facts can be shoved into it?