My local indie bookstore just phoned me to say that a book I ordered (Dancing in the Glory of Monsters by Jason K. Stearns) is in and maybe I'd like to come pick it up today at lunch. It's a nonfiction title about the ongoing warfare in the country now known as the Democratic Republic of Congo (DR Congo for short). During my youth we called it Zaire. Before I was born it was the Belgian Congo. The ongoing war in DR Congo is said to be the deadliest conflict since World War II. [Thanks to BK Broyla for pointing out my original misstatement comparing the two wars.] It's an unbelievably horrific story that most people have never heard.
I'm reading up on this horror show because part of my work-in-progress is based in eastern DR Congo, where the fighting has been the worst and where atrocities and war crimes continue to this very day. In fact, as you read this, something unspeakable is likely happening in DR Congo. DR Congo also has the distinction of being the rape capital of the world. Isn't that nice?
This is all part of the research for my current novel. I had no idea things were so utterly hellish in DR Congo when I started writing; this is all stuff I've discovered along the way.
My WIP is set, unlike my other novels, in the present day. I did this so I wouldn't have to do a lot of research, but once I decided that my female lead was going to live for a while in a third-world country and for a variety of innocent reasons I chose DR Congo, I was back into the work of doing research. Mostly, you know, I wanted enough facts and enough of a feel for the place that I could create the appropriate verisimilitude in my reader. I did not want to become an expert in equatorial African history and politics. I just wanted to be able to believably write my setting and my supporting cast, but the situation in DR Congo is complex and so I'm doing more reading than I'd originally intended.
This always happens to me. In order to write a couple thousand words of description and setting, I end up reading a couple thousand pages of nonfiction. I have to know, apparently, a great deal more about the real historical place and time than I actually use in the novel. And, of course, I have to know more or less what's true so that I know how far I'm comfortable distorting that truth. The facts are always less important to me than the unity of my narrative. I don't write history books; I write fiction.
Still, I always wonder how much of the discovered history to include into the novels. I could have put a bunch of interesting facts about America in the Great Depression into the detective novel I just wrote. I could have worked a lot of interesting trivia into the Colonial American book I wrote last year. But most of the stuff I learned stayed out of the narratives, and likely most of the things I'll learn (or have already learned) about African small hold farms and Rwandan armies and Hutus and Tutsis and the UN relief efforts will remain outside of the book.
I'm aware that there is a genre called Historical Fiction that has its own set of tropes and expectations, but I don't really read this genre so I don't really know how my works compare to actual historical fiction. I want my readers to feel like they're wherever I'm sending them in space or time, but I don't want to teach history and I have little patience for books that attempt to recreate, brick-by-brick, a lost time or place. I want characters and humanity, darn it. Everything else is set dressing and costuming to me.
Does anyone here write historical fiction? How do you decide how much of your research to put in? What's the purpose of your research? Do you write because of the history, or is the history because of the story, if you take my meaning?