Patrice Sarath and I will be teaching a session on Historical Research at the upcoming DFW Writers Conference. Both of us write historical fiction, and I suspect we both research more than we need. However, it pays off.
One of my contentions is that differing genres require different levels of research. I am still trying to define this in my mind, so if you have input on this subject, I would be interested in hearing it. But here is my basic grasp of the genres as a reader.
1) Historical (Biography)
This requires the greatest amount of research because your readers require the highest level of historical accuracy.
2) Historical (Literary)
The readers here realize that the author isn’t writing a biography, so they don’t expect 100% fidelity to the past. Still a huge amount of research required, but not as much as #1.
3) Historical Mystery
Your readers notice tiny details. That’s what Mystery readers thrive on, so you’d best do ample research. They will catch you out if screw up. May actually be tied with #2.
4) Regency Romance
Your readers know -their- period. They expect you to accurately portray the behaviors, the history, and the day-to-day details of Regency life. If you screw something up, they will gaze upon your work with mild derision and mock you with witty repartee (possibly in their electrified journals). You are following in the steps of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer…tread carefully.
5) Alternate History
Your readers tend to be history buffs, and often know everything about guns and weapons of your period. On the other hand, they see history as wibbly-wobbly-timey-wimey, and will let you bend the facts of your time period so long as you can come up with a brilliant explanation for why Churchill rode a mastodon…
6) Historical Fantasy
You’ve got a lot more leeway to bend history. You still need to make your world historically logical (so don’t introduce the fountain pen before the typewriter), and your details within that framework need to be accurate, but you’ve got license to alter history as you will.
7) Regency Historical Romance
If you don’t know the difference between this and #4, let me sum up. The “Historical” in that genre name doesn’t necessarily mean historical accuracy. It means more sex…which is absolutely NOT accurate for the period. These books do not require anywhere near the accuracy that #4 does because your reader is more interested in the romance than in the details of the table setting. (This is not to say that some of these authors don’t do vast amounts of research…just that the genre in general is rather lax in terms of historical accuracy, particularly where behavior and social mores are concerned.)
I tend to think of this as a rough order of how accurate the readers expect the author to be, and thus how much research the author needs to do.