No, I'm not going to talk about the gross unicorn frappe thing! And how it pairs well with a pack of Virginia Slims. Calm down. I was thinking about Unicorns in the shower this morning (but not in an icky way so you don't have to scrub your mind-- or has that ship already sailed?). There's a really helpful book about writing and self publishing by a guy named Johnny Truant that I've been using to get ready for my novel's release. In the book Johnny tells this story about how he wanted to write a western with his writing partner Sean Platt. Seab said NO WAY because if they wrote a western they'd have to do research on stuff like: What color is the smoke in a gunfight? Sean had no desire to do any darn research. He just wanted to write. Johnny figured they could put their main cowboy character on a Unicorn, thus establishing that nothing in their western universe was subject to reality. Thus a series of Unicorn Westerns was born.
I gotta admit, I totally admire the idea. But it's not me. I totally dig research. I love it it like it was a cuddly puppy. Oh, research, have I told you lately that I love you?
So the cool thing about writing a series of historical novels set in the Civil War featuring Kate Warne,the first female Pinkerton detective, is that I can use stuff I already know (cause I've been a history professor longer than I care to admit), research more stuff and make the rest up. And it turns out I love making stuff up almost as much as I love research.
Kate Warne's life is perfect for this balance of fact and fiction. Historians who care about this sort of thing argue about her knowable stuff. The questions they ask include: what was her real name? Was she Allan Pinkerton's mistress? Was she an important spy or just a token girl? There's more, but my point is that there's a ton of stuff we don't know about her, which means I was free to indulge in my fascination with antebellum circuses, theaters and the other cultural spaces where society's oddballs hang out. I could write about famous circus men like Dan Rice and that perennial fave, P. T. Barnum (go see my Pinterst page for fun stuff about both of them). Along the way I still had to get the color of the smoke right. Which is cool. It turns out that a lot of people are fascinated with historical details.
When writing the first book, Lincoln Special, I most surely over-researched. I have city maps of Washington and DC, menus from Baltimore hotels and too many details about ladies clothing. It turns out I didn't need most of the information. I'd write it and then realize it was an "information dump" and delete it. Too many historically accurate details ruin the story telling. Readers don't want to know every piece of clothing Kate put on every morning, nor do they care about the exact route she took to cross the city. Nor how exactly one harnessed a horse to a gig or a shay or a barouche.
What I've learned over the past two years is that historical novels need to get the smoke right, but they need unicorns too. Because if we wanted reality we'd turn on the news. Oh, right. Never mind!