Lately, I have received several requests to share my view on the subject of researching historical facts, how much of it is necessary, and how close to stick to reality. As I have only recently begun to write historical fiction, I am definitely not here to give career tips, only to share what I have learned so far.
It certainly helps to be a bit of a history buff. You use your imagination to build a world that is unfamiliar to modern readers based on historical facts. Since you are going to live in that world the entire time you’re working on your book, it is of advantage if you enjoy the subject matter and are familiar with the basics of the time in history.
It is also useful to read historical fiction because it is hard to find out what's popular and what's not unless you actually read some of the books. It would be like opening a Mexican restaurant without knowing how to cook at all, or finding out if there are any other Mexican restaurants nearby, and whether or not they offer the same style of food as you do.
Research is indeed necessary. I do not consider myself as part of the history police and I’m not about to launch into a sermon on the historical inaccuracies found in books and TV shows. Like so many others, I love to watch Downton Abbey, I saw every episode of The Tudors, no matter how historically inaccurate and loved it. I also have been known to enjoy the occasional episode of Reign, and Wolf Hall, despite its far-fetched dramas. What readers and viewers, such as me, love is to be bewitched by the charms of a bygone era; to do that they need to be able to trust the author not to break the spell prematurely. That means you need to take some time to figure out what peoples’ lives were like during the era you are writing about and don’t just call every deviation creative license.
But it is also important to know when to stop your research. It is so easy to get caught up in the minutiae and fall down the rabbit hole. You are, after all, not a historian. You can spend years crafting the perfect historical tale, but I can’t imagine that all this effort and time will be rewarded. At some point, it’s probably better to publish an imperfect book than nothing at all.
Don’t let the historical facts torment you! If they do not align with your storyline, feel free to change some of them. Yes, I know, I said that thorough research of your subject matter is essential, even if it’s only to confirm the facts and then change them later. It's hard to modify the facts if you don’t know what they are! Just realize that changing history might be frowned upon by certain readers unless of course you set out to write about an alternative timeline from the start. There's nothing wrong asking "What if...?"
What has been your experience? How much research do you do?