The reason for doing research is so that you don’t look like an idiot.
The reason that you stop doing research is to avoid boring your reader and losing your sanity.
You should only research when it makes life easier for you.
In my opinion, when you are starting a piece of fiction, when should be a question that is asked early in the process. If you nail down that time then you make life a lot easier for yourself.
Let’s consider a sweet and gentle heroine, Gwendolyn, and a strong jawed hero, Kurt. They first meet during a magical moment at sunset. In the soft glow of the fading light, they smile and perhaps their hands touch as they part and go their separate ways towards… towards what?
I live in Leeds, UK. If they met today, 21st June, at the end of my street (possibly the least romantic place in the world), sunset would be 9.40pm. She could be wearing a floating dress and cute sandals while he would be wearing jeans and a tight t-shirt that of course showed off his manly muscles. They would part and go towards their separate beds. However if they met, say, on March 21st, then sunset would be 6.20pm and they would be going back to their evening pursuits, perhaps in snug sweaters and waterproof jackets. Gwendolyn will be embroidering a picture for a friend and Kurt will be rebuilding a motorbike. And if that first, tingling meeting was on 21st December then sunset would be at 3.46pm and they would be rushing home for their evening meal. They are wearing warm boots and scarves and Gwendolyn’s meal probably involves a cupcake while Kurt is definitely having steak.
Most readers will probably not go around marking in pencil the different times of day and keeping track. On the other hand, those who notice that Gwendolyn and Kurt are suffering from irregular sunsets will find it incredibly annoying. Having a sunset at 5pm one day and 8pm the next isn’t great continuity and could jar if it’s noticed. It may not only stop them reading the book, it could stop them recommending the book and, worse, stop them buying more of your work.
It doesn’t matter if you are on the exact second. To a normal mortal like me, I couldn’t tell you the exact minute that the sun sets as I’m going about my daily life. I just know that the sun sets later on some days than on others and hang out my washing accordingly. When I’m writing, however, I know that I can use a rough rule of thumb to know whether the exciting chase through the woods is in dappled sunshine (which makes it harder to spot the dropped clue in the light and shade) or in darkness (which makes it easier for the dastardly ambusher to creep up on them).
Setting the time based on the present is one thing, but how about having Gwendoline and Kurt battling Victorian Vampires. They are creeping around 19th century London, valiantly stalking the bloodsuckers. If the vampires struggle with daylight, knowing when the sun is likely to set is really important and, fortunately, sunrise and sunset times stay roughly the same for millennia. You can look up the times for this year and apply them whenever. In this scenario, the year is the important detail.
Queen Victoria came to the throne in 1837. She died in 1901. That’s roughly 64 years, or the difference between 2023 and 1959. A lot of stuff happened in science, industry and politics and many people know enough about that time to quibble. If the characters are huddled together under a streetlight, is it powered by gas (from the 1820s) or electric (in general use from around 1878)? And as Lord Kurt has one manly arm around the fainting Miss Gwendolyne, does his other hand hold a Colt Walker (introduced 1847), a Colt Peacemaker (1873) or a Colt New Service (1898). While someone in 1898 could absolutely be using a well-maintained Colt Walker or even a blunderbuss, it’s slightly harder to have a Colt New Service in 1847, but that depends on the plot.
In general, on the whole and by and large, it doesn’t matter too much. If you are getting complaints, you can look the critic firmly in the eye and tell them, ‘It’s like that in my world.’ After all, vampires aren’t real, so what does it matter if a young Charles Dickens is using a commercial typewriter? If you want to give your story authentic bones (with room to fudge a year or two if the plot needs it – plot comes first) then if you pick a date at the start then you can always look up information as you feel you need it. Perhaps Bram Stoker writes Dracula after learning about vampires in a chance encounter with Gwendolyn and Kurt. Dracula was published in 1897, so let’s have the story set in 1875. That means that Kurt can have a shiny new Colt Peacemaker and Gwedonlyn will be wearing rigorous corsets and a bustle. And as you rattle through their amazing adventures, if you are in doubt, you can just have a quick look to see what was around in 1875, fiddle with stuff to make the plot work and carry on.
Fantasy writing is not too different when it comes to time. You may be creating a new world that is stuffed with elves and goblins and magic, but if you do a little bit of research at the start, you can make life a lot easier for yourself.
Kurt the Barbarian may be meeting the sweet Gwendolyn the Healer in the fabled city of Tarsh, but unless you feel like worrying about planetary physics, you can use the same rules for their daylight hours. Are they meeting as the sun sets and the gates of the city are closing? You can absolutely use the prosaic timings of Leeds. Perhaps it’s winter, and the sun dips below the Virnoth Mountains early and Kurt the Barbarian, resplendent in his furs, wraps a warm woollen cloak around Gwendolyn the Healer before leading her to a sustaining meal in a local inn. Or is it later in the year and the hot summer winds are swirling up from the plains of Redumar as the incense rises from the temples on the soft evening air.
By the way, did you know that sunrise and sunset are different depending on where in the world you are? Let’s take a sunset on 10th November. In Leeds, where the modern day romance between Kurt and Gwendolyn is progressing nicely, the sun sets at 4.16pm. If you are being extremely detailed, the Victorian Vampire Hunters in London have sunset at 4.18pm on November 10th (and the chance of those two minutes being significant is extremely small). But perhaps Lord Kurt and Miss Gwendolyn have followed the vampires across Europe to the capital of Romania. Sunset at Bucharest on November 10th is at 4.54pm. But wait, the fanged fiend has fled to an unexpected lair in Hong Kong. As they scull across the bustling harbour on that fateful 10th November, the sun sets at 5.41pm. Alas, they miss their chance, and the bloodthirsty Count is now in Santiago, Chile. November 10th is late spring or early summer in the Southern Hemisphere and as Lord Kurt escorts Miss Gwendolyn into the International Exposition in the Quinta Normal grounds, they fear that the sunset at 8.18pm will awaken their nemesis.
This may all seem like a lot of research, but it’s just a few clicks on the internet and then you have some bones to hang your story on. If you choose 10th November in Leeds for the modern romance between Kurt and Gwendolyn then you can use the run up to Christmas with the city Christmas lights, the displays in Roundhay Park and all the Christmas shopping events as easy ways to frame their encounters as the story progresses. And if Lord Kurt and Miss Gwendolyn are searching Victorian London, it’s so much easier to know if a London Underground station would be open in a particular area if you can just check the history pages of a website for 1875 rather than worrying about making something up and then contradicting that two chapters later. And surely it’s easier to remember if Kurt the Barbarian and Gwendolyn the Healer are battling ice or heat waves if you have nailed down an equivalent real world date. After all, you don’t want the heat of the summer sun shining on the gilded domes of Tarsh if you’ve described the snow storm two paragraphs and three hours earlier.
My opinion is that a reader wants to know about the characters and the plot. The most important thing is absolutely the story. I believe that it’s easier for a reader to savour your wonderful writing if those minor, background details work together, support the story and help things flow. And if research gets in the way of the story – junk the research!
You can find the rest of the posts on this here – Research and the Author, Collected Posts
Sites that I have used when writing this article
Time and Date – for all those sunset times, and it’s also great for scheduling across time zones.
Military Factory – because while I remembered about the Peacemaker, I knew that there was a lot that I didn’t know
Fashion History Timeline – And if I had chosen 1876 instead, Miss Gwendolyn could have been wearing a sleek princess line dress instead of being encumbered by that bustle.