I spend a lot of time with history and true crime manuscripts. True Crime stories have to be well-written. They are aimed at entertaining audiences, so sharp writing when telling that story is crucial.
History manuscripts are different. Authors have to remain within the boundaries of the sources, and cannot deviate, otherwise the manuscript turns into historical fiction.
Those boundaries can make authors feel like they cannot add more detail to their stories. And that’s true, in part.
There are ways to add detail and still stay within accurate research. And those ways involve using your writing.
For example, when trying to characterize your story’s main characters, there are ways to add more depth to characters. First, you can use the person’s background. If there are stories about that character – short anecdotes about their past – those work well to help describe characters.
Even a small anecdote about a Christmas present or a story about them as a child or an interaction they had with someone else that shows a side of their character the other research doesn’t show.
Much of that information probably exists for most topics authors are researching. And those small details do a great amount of work. Find those small stories that help paint a complete picture of your characters. It doesn’t have to be much. A little goes a long way. But those little anecdotes help your reader understand the characters more, which will encourage them to continue reading.
Another thing that helps is to paint the accurate historical picture of the locations and scenery. If you’re working on a court case, there probably isn’t much detail in the historical record on what they courtroom looked like during that trial. BUT, there should be information on what it looked like during that time frame.
There is also plenty of information on the city in which it took place during that time, as well as the people involved and the current social status of the residents.
Add those details. Tell your reader what the courtroom looked like based on your research. Tell them what the weather was like. That allows you to add historical detail, even if you can’t find it specific to the trial you are researching. Knowing what the inside of the courtroom looked like during that trial is information you can find.
Another tactic is to liven up your setting. Get as much research as you can so that you can offer readers a vivid description of the scene. That isn’t just referring to setting. Tell people what life in that city was like and how people lived. That goes a long way to show the current environment.
What I’m saying is remember that nothing takes place in a vacuum. There is historical, political, environmental and social elements you can add to liven up a manuscript. Everything sits in a context, and it is important for you to illustrate that context so that your reader understands the whole environment.
The most vital thing to remember with your writing when you are authoring a history title is this: You Are a Storyteller. When you tell a story, if you’re any good at it, you don’t just drone on about the main facts. No one wants to read a list of your research. We can all research in this digital era, if we choose to.
I’m not saying that entertaining your reader is the most vital element in a history manuscript because it is not. That is the research and analysis.
But readability is also paramount for sales and word of mouth.
When you tell a story, you give tangential details to add to your story to increase the entertainment level. It’s the same with writing. It’s up to you find those small details about a person or event that add great detail.
Let’s look at it this way. If you have a man on trial for murder, telling your reader that research shows he did a lot of work for the local children’s home is one small sentence. However, that one small sentence characterizes that man in great detail. It tells us a lot of that person.
You can do the same with setting. If the trial takes place in a courtroom that had a fire a year earlier, that’s a nice detail for setting. If you’ve seen photos of that courtroom during the time frame in which the trial took place, you can add small details of how it might have looked. That doesn’t mean spending 2-3 paragraphs in a row to set the scene. You won’t have the exact information to do that.
However, giving your reader as much detail about the scene as possible will help you greatly.
Readers crave detail. Not too much, of course, but they need the small details to fill in the gaps. You don’t give them too much because ambiguity allows the reader to create the scene in their own minds. Your small details help with that.
So, what I suggest is mining all your research to find as many small details that add to your characters and setting and help your reader form a sharper picture.