The first draft of my work-in-progress is 75% cat barf. I can practically hear all of you now, making soothing tut-tut noises designed to make me feel better about myself, but it’s OK, really! I know it’s a mess, because it was only when I was 75% of the way through writing it that I realized I was holding myself accountable to something that I’d always intended to be a guide, and it had become a prison.
I’m talking about research. The work in question is a work of historical fiction, pegged to a polar expedition that took place in 1914. I had traveled to London, Cambridge, and Antarctica for it, and the specter of Ernest Shackleton was looming over me, creating a miasma of fug with the pipe that’s in his mouth in lots and lots of photographs. I’d seen a couple of letters from Shackleton, and the memory of his horrible penmanship overtook everything, making me write dialogue I only thought would come from the mouth of someone who would have such illegible handwriting.
The crew of Shackleton’s ill-fated Endurance expedition made even more noise. I’d read every diary and letter I could get my hands on, from carpenter to captain, geologist to ship’s artist, and three-quarters of the way through my first draft, it became obvious to me that these men – these people I’d drawn inspiration from, whose stories I knew so well, whose lives I loved – were stifling me.
And that’s when I realized I was writing fiction, and I didn’t have to be stifled. The book would eventually, after all, have a disclaimer somewhere: “Based on the events of Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance expedition.” In fact, I was writing a whole new character into the expedition, and this person’s very existence would shift everything out of reality, anyway, so why was I working so hard?
I finished that first draft. And then I put it away for a really long time because I needed to forget nearly everything I’d spent years learning about that expedition. The hard work I had put in was cramping my style. More accurately, it was cramping my story.
I’m going to spend some time this month telling you how to break free from all the research you did, and why you need to. But first, let us acknowledge some truisms about the writing of historical fiction:
1. You probably got interested in whatever you’re writing because you read something or learned about something that intrigued you. This interest has taken over your life. In other words, the cards were stacked against you from the get-go.
2. You then invested a lot of time and brain power in researching whatever interested you, and then you became Emotionally Invested.
3. You probably also invested money in this endeavor.
4. You’re likely half in love for one reason or another with a number of personages you have encountered over the course of your research.
5. None of the above is bad, and none of the above will go to waste.
OK? Good. Keep these acknowledgements in mind, especially that last one.
Now, let’s explore what happens when you embark on the writing of a historical fiction. Part of you is saying that you must be diligent in the research, and you’re right, for a number of reasons. The top reason is that you need to feel like you’re confident in your work, and historical fiction is great for that! Somewhere there exists a document that will allow you to lean on it a little bit, and that historical accuracy can feel really wonderful.
Speaking personally, historical accuracy also provided a crutch for my creativity: Whenever I got stuck, I could cast around in that other time period, and I would be able to take the plot in another direction, simply because I hadn’t known about one thing or another. Shining a light on a dark corner of your awareness ends up being a remarkably good way to jog your brain.
But this proved to be a distraction – just because it was new and shiny to me doesn’t mean it was new and shiny to the characters who were, duh, already living in the time period I was writing about, and a lot of the scenes I wrote weren’t usable at all.
The other thing that happens when you’re writing historical fiction is that the time period you’re writing about has probably already been explored and examined ad infinitum, by, say, oh, historical scholars. You know, actual professionals, whereas you are just visiting the space. Pegging any storyline to a thing that has been so well explored might just mean that your head literally cannot escape from all the things that have already been written, the things you know are fact.
Here’s an example from my own work: I had decided I wanted to introduce a new character to this expedition that so many people knew so much about. Sounds intriguing, right? But tying this character’s story to the Endurance expedition only meant that there was no room for the character to breathe. My insistence on using that one specific expedition as a backdrop meant that there wasn’t really room for a new character at all.
Not, anyway, the character I wanted to build. Because there were already existing personalities on the expedition, if I was going to write something even based on this expedition, whoever I wrote in was going to have to be someone who fit in with a crew with fixed personalities.
So here’s how I eventually reclaimed my narrative and how you can escape the trap of all the research you’ve done.
Remember you’re writing fiction.
This was a huge step for me. I was so mired in the work I’d done to feel like an expert in this expedition that I’d forgotten I had much more freedom than I was giving myself. Fiction means I can feel free to make things up, right? This is a thing I have to keep reminding myself of, even though I’m neck-deep in draft three by now.
Let your point-of-view character guide you.
I was feeling pretty blue about my mess of a first draft, but then I realized I already had a guide for the process: My protagonist! They were likely to undergo some serious changes in the second and third drafts, but I’d spent enough time with them to know what they ultimately wanted and where they wanted to end up. External to the plot – external to the confines of the book’s narrative – I had to ask myself what needed to happen to let my character achieve what they needed to achieve. Ultimately, this led to some deep thinking about who they needed to be around, which necessitated a changeup in the cast and crew.
Make just one big change.
I was still stuck, though, with the big elephant in the room, Ernest Shackleton himself. He was the leader of the expedition, such a large figure that today people are still trying to apply the techniques he used on the trip to modern-day problems like mergers and acquisitions. He was nicknamed “The Boss,” and he loomed large in my research; so large that my brain had unwittingly, and perhaps inevitably, set him at the center of the manuscript. The working title even featured him. So I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and said goodbye to the legend of the man who’d sent me on this journey in the first place. Instead, I chose to highlight an unsavory part of his personality that I’d uncovered in my research, one I’d overlooked in favor of paying homage to the leadership skills that everyone else seemed to want to write about and obsess over. This move had a knock-on effect: highlighting the flaw helped my protagonist along their path to becoming who they’d eventually have to be to make the whole narrative work.
You don’t have to make such a pivotal a change in your work to see some real differences in your narrative, but this is the one that worked for me – and it gave me a whole new lens on the concept of “killing your darlings.”
In the end, these steps I’ve taken will, I know, help the manuscript along to completion. But I think I was pretty floored at how strong the cage I’d built for myself was, how hard it was for me to see beyond it.
It took me a while to reconcile all the work I’d done on the expedition with the fact that it had effectively put a massive roadblock in the progress of my novel. It’s a bittersweet situation – while I can probably call myself an expert on the Endurance expedition, I wouldn’t be able to say I’d completed a novel based on it until I was willing to forget all the time and muscle I’d put into it.
Research made me adept, but it also trapped me. Go into it eyes wide open, seeing all the possibilities that lie beyond it for your work of historical fiction, and you won’t fall into the same trap.
—Yi Shun Lai is the author of Pin Ups, a memoir. She teaches in the MFA programs at Bay Path and Southern New Hampshire universities and is a founding editor of Undomesticated Magazine. Visit at undomesticatedmag.com.