How much detail is too much?

I’m in the process of approving copyedits for the second book in the Benedict Hall series, Hall of Secrets.  My quite fabulous copyeditor questioned my use of the Levy Tube, which was the first swivel lipstick, copyrighted in 1915.  Her concern was that she didn’t recognize it, which is easily addressed; it’s real, and discoverable.  It brought up my own concern, however, about excessive detail.

There’s no easy answer here.  The rule of thumb in writing historical fiction is that if the story doesn’t need the detail, it should be omitted.  Those of us who do hours of research, though, find it difficult to omit something that fascinates us, and that we think–and hope–may fascinate readers, too.  I even found a photograph of a Levy Tube, with lipstick still in it!  It’s all but irresistible to me.  (Not that I’d want to try that lipstick–brrrrr, that stuff is old.)

We’ve all read the books that feel like a list of historical facts, and it’s irritating.  There should be a balance, of course.  It’s just tricky finding that tipping point!  Especially in recent-era historical fiction, when we know so much about the period, it’s a delicate process to winnow out what’s necessary and interesting from what is excessive.  I may have to go back and say farewell to the Levy Tube.

Or should I?  1920s lipstick tube



7 Responses to “How much detail is too much?”

  • Dennis Farmer says:

    Louise, keep it in.. I am fascinated by details like this and when reading a book on my iPad, it is easy for me to stop, switch to google and find out what it was that sparked the question. Then, Bingo!, I’ve learned something new.. This just adds to the richness of your writing style.. Besides, rules need to be broken once in a while, if only to test that the rule is still valid..


  • Catherine says:

    I totally agree with Mr. Farmer. Leave it in! Those are the fascinating details we readers of historical fiction love!

  • Kay Kenyon says:

    No, wait! I say leave it out, because it is definitely a very odd term, and might tend to bump one out of the story. But I think I’m out-voted!! I always love your books, so I’m sure you’ll do the right thing.

  • Alex Tillson says:

    I vote for keeping it. It’s an interesting tidbit!

    • Cate Campbell says:

      Of course, writing by committee isn’t a great idea, but in this case, you’ve all helped me make up my mind! Thank you. I think Alex is right–it’s a tidbit, and as such, folks who enjoy picking up bits of information from historical fiction should enjoy it. Thank you, everyone!

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