“It is not necessary to doubt this solution of the problem. We have so little of this kind of romance in our history that it is best not to disturb the tradition, especially as there is just enough of solid fact to allow it.”
— Edward Griffin Porter, Rambles in Old Boston, New England (1887)
I’ve come down with a nasty head cold, possibly the result of the weather going all New England on us again (60 degrees one day, big fluffy snowflakes the next), so I’m not sure how much sense today’s entry will make.
I came across the above quote while writing a new draft — specifically, pursuing a puppies-and-donuts detour — and it seemed to sum up a lot of how I approach the second stage of research. What I’ve been working on has had elements of “secret history” fiction to it: magic in the context of documented places and events.
Tim Powers, when researching Declare and The Stress of Her Regard, both of which use historical figures and events as characters and catalysts, set a few rules for himself: he could not change dates or recorded events. If a certain person was reported as being in Venice on a particular date, he could not just dismiss it and have the character running around Normandy. As a result, the novels have a kind of grounding to them that supports the rest of the story. If the setting, the details of history, the actions characters take, all seem in keeping with what I know of, say, Romantic poets, then I’m happy to accept lamiae and djinn. (Of course, after that the characters and the internal plausibility of the plot have to keep me going.)
So that’s the main goal I have when I’m doing historical research: just enough solid fact to allow the fantasy to stand atop it. In a general sense, this is true for any kind of research to flesh out your world; a character making an offhand erroneous comment about Gnosticism or particle physics will knock certain readers out of the story. But what the quote from Porter above reminds me is that readers want to be convinced; if the story has its own power, there’s no need to doubt the structure beneath. (It also tells me that I’ll have to be careful in using Porter as a reliable source for building my own histories, but that’s another matter.)
What kind of details kick you out of a story if they’re done wrong? History, science, personal interactions, geographical impossibilities?