Writing About Writing: In the Details

by Michael S. Katz

Let me preface this post by saying that I love to read historical fiction because I like to learn.

Recently I read a book in which I learned things like methamphetamine was used during World War Two by both sides to keep soldiers awake and battle ready, and the Germans even baked it into chocolate bars; that the Dakota Building in New York City was built by the part-owner of the Singer Sewing Machine Company; and that on a January day in 1943 the temperature in South Dakota swung from minus four to plus forty-five within the span of 120 seconds, the most dramatic shift ever recorded in America.

I followed that up with a book that informed me that a judas hole is a small door set into a bigger, sliding farm door; that a Grand Alaskan rifle is built by Arnold Arms Company, chambered for the .358 Magnum, and can cost upwards of $7,000; and that the Port of Vancouver combined with the Fraser River Port Authority and the North Fraser Port Authority to become the Port Metro Vancouver, the largest port in the Pacific Northwest, with 25 separate terminals occupying 375 miles of coastline.

What did these two books have in common?  They are Jack Reacher novels, written by Lee Child (61 Hours and Worth Dying For, to be precise). Did you guess either of them?

Lee Child does not write historical fiction. But he does have a habit of including a great deal of information in his books, information that is often excessively detailed without (like the above examples) being necessary to the story. And I don’t have a single problem with that. I like to learn so I find it interesting, and it is usually done in such a way so as not to take me out of the story.

Knowing how much information to include becomes much more of a challenge when writing true historical fiction, because the author has to craft a world that takes the reader to a different time, and has to keep the reader in that time period while still telling an exciting or interesting story.

When I wrote Shalom on The Range, my aim was to write a book showing the history of Jews in the old west, using humor and action to appeal to all kinds of people—not just Jews or fans of westerns. I wanted to include a lot of historical detail to show what it was like living back then, but I did not want to be too detailed because I thought it might be boring to some readers. In fact, I cut out a lot of details when I revised the novel for an ebook version.

You can’t please everyone. Some people thought I didn’t put enough historical information in it; some people think I put too much. One reviewer thought I described clothing and buildings with way too much detail, and maybe I did; but my purpose was to surround the reader in the old west. Another person found nothing wrong with my book except that I wrote George Armstrong Custer was a general when he died, when he was actually a lieutenant colonel. Like I said, you can’t please everyone.

Which brings me back to Lee Child. I read some of the comments on Amazon.com about his later books, and some of the readers state that the excess information is boring and takes them out of the story. In my roles as a writer and an editor, the trick is to put that information in places where the rhythm of the book is not broken, such as at the beginnings of chapters; or to present it in short bursts of data from time to time. In my opinion, Lee Child does it that way, and does it successfully.

Still, even Jack Reacher can’t please everyone. But for me, Lee Child and Jack Reacher can show off what they know any time.