I always love a good historical crime novel and when I read the description for A.J. MacKenzie’s The Body on the Doorstep, I was immediately taken by the sleuthing duo of Reverend Hardcastle and his assistant Mrs Chaytor. The writing of historical fiction fascinates me, mostly because I can’t help but wonder about all the research that goes into it. I love hearing about authors’ research processes and how they decide what to include or not. Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel, the husband-and-wife team who write as A.J. MacKenzie, have a very specific method to decide that and kindly shared it with me in a guest post. Their codeword is Reykjavik.
You’ve spent a year researching a historical novel. You’ve read a hundred books, countless online sources, letters and documents. You’ve looked at maps, paintings, photos. You know the period and its people inside out and backwards. You know how people dressed, what they ate, where they lived, how they spoke. If you had a time machine, you could go to your chosen time and place tomorrow, land there and feel perfectly at home.
Now, how much of all this lovingly and painfully collected detail goes into your novel? The sad truth is, not very much.
Most readers don’t actually care how much research we authors do. They really don’t. They want us to deliver them a good satisfying read, a story that cracks along with some characters they can engage with and commit to and a plot that keeps them turning the pages. That’s all.
Yes, they will – and do – cane us on social media if we get historical details wrong. And they are right to do so, because glaring historical inaccuracies distract the reader from the story and irritate them, sometimes to the point where they lose interest. (We recently read a historical novel where dynamite was used to blow up houses during the Great Fire of London in 1666. We stopped reading at that point.)
But adding in too much detail can be equally distracting and equally irritating. We call it Reykjavik.
The term comes from a thriller we both read long ago on honeymoon, when we were both still novice writers ourselves. In this book, an aeroplane flying from Washington to Moscow lands at Reykjavik. This comes at quite a tense moment in the story, when it is still not clear how things will go; the future of the world is in the balance, etc, etc.
After the plane lands, the author then treats the reader to a potted description of Iceland. We learn about the country’s history, its geology and geography, its economy, population, political system, even a bit about its culture. By this point we are holding our breath. All this material on Iceland must be leading up to something. Surely there is going to be a major crisis here, now, very soon?
Nope. The plane refuels, takes off and continues to Moscow. Iceland never features in the story again.
That is Reykjavik; flooding a book with pointless detail, just because you can. Of course, it is wonderfully tempting to throw in more detail and description. You’ve done all the hard work, so why not use it? But the danger is that in doing so you will leave your readers sitting there slack-jawed with astonishment and than asking, what was all that about?
There is an old rule in historical research. When you write a book, only about ten per cent of what you learned goes into the text; the other ninety per cent goes on the floor. In our experience, at least, that is true of historical novels as well. Do the research by all means; just don’t expect to use it.
If one of us writes a passage like that in the thriller mentioned above, the other only needs to say ‘Reykjavik’ to get the point across.
Bio: A.J. MacKenzie is the pseudonym of Marilyn Livingstone and Morgen Witzel, a collaborative Anglo-Canadian husband-and-wife duo. Between them they have written more than twenty non-fiction and academic titles, with specialisms including management, medieval economic history and medieval warfare.
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