The process for writing historical novels generally goes like this. You happen up on something that intrigues you. You do the research – lots of it, more than you can use. You ponder characters and plots. You dream about them. And then you start writing.
The temptation is to get in every fascinating detail you uncovered in your research. General Benjamin Butler had crossed eyes. Keep that? Didn’t really have anything to do with the plot of Evermore (my novel about the Civil War, Part III of Plantation Series), but it was such a fun fact that I kept it. It only took a few words to describe and it added to this minor character’s portrait.
Another very interesting part of the Yankee occupation of New Orleans was General Butler’s “Woman Order.” The dear ladies of this conquered city felt immune from repercussions for their behavior – they were ladies, after all — and they gave the Union soldiers a very hard time. Genteel ladies in their huge hooped skirts, gloves, bonnets, starch, lace, etc., women who felt faint if someone spoke of bodily parts in mixed company – these women felt free to spit on men in the blue uniform. They tossed chamber pots from the balcony onto their heads. They hissed invectives at them. They were a nuisance, and when they finally abused a colonel, Butler had had enough.
He issued General Order No. 28 which decreed that any women insulting or showing contempt for Union soldiers, officer or enlisted, would be treated as “women of the town” who were “plying their avocation.” This meant they would be treated as if they were soliciting prostitution. For instance, as in Wikipedia’s example, if a woman punched a soldier, he could punch her back. If she was obstreperous enough, he could take her to the stockade to cool off until her husband came for her.
This order naturally provoked outrage in the South, but the ripples reached all the way to Washington and across the Atlantic. Huge outcry denouncing Butler for his unchivalrous stance. Some accused him of tolerating rape of these women, though I don’t believe that is what he meant at all. He merely meant to stifle the abusive behavior.
I thought this was great stuff. I wrote it into Evermore, several scenes with secondary characters. I loved it. But. Cutting room floor. I decided the book was too long (this was immediately before the digital revolution in publishing caught on and we worried more about word count then). The agent and editor also said, too long. And I had to admit the woman order was only peripherally connected to my main plot. So I took out my lovely pages about outraged Southern ladies and indignant Union soldiers.
It’s always a problem. I (we) feel like including every bit of what I learned in my research – it’s all so interesting — and of course I can’t. I write fiction, not history books.
In this latest book that just came out, Elysium (Book IV), I read up on Reconstruction in the South. Egads, what a sad tangle. How many of the dirty tricks and other injustices could I include? Should I include the actions of the Freedmen’s Bureau in trying to balance the white planters’ demands and the ex-slaves’ needs and demands? The economics of establishing a market economy where there had been a slave economy was very complicated, and would my readers want to get into that? If I were reading a novel, not a history book, I’d rather not detour into that history lesson. I’d rather stay focused on my characters and if a Freedmen’s Bureau action directly affected my character, then okay I would mention it.
So – if you write historical fiction, you’re always going to know more than you put into the book. That doesn’t mean your research time was wasted – everything you know goes into deciding what your characters will do and feel.
The other side of that issue is that you don’t have to master the economics of changing a slave economy into a market economy. You need to know about it and to have a sense of specific difficulties, but being a fiction writer does not necessitate your being an expert in that era. You have to know a lot, you have to be accurate with the details you use, but you don’t have to become the professor specializing in Reconstruction to put your characters in that environment.
So writerly hint for the day: do the research, use a light hand in including all those bits and pieces you learned, be accurate, be sure the details you include advance the main story, and relax. Your readers want a story, not a history lesson.
And if it just kills you to leave out your bits as fascinating as Butler’s Woman Order, write it all in. Everything. Get it out of your system. This is why we write revisions. And rewrite the revisions.