Let’s say you’re writing a crime novel. Let’s say you’re writing a spy novel. Or, even better, let’s say you’re writing a fantasy novel along the lines of the The Song of Ice and Fire books. How much understanding do you need to have of something like politics? For the spy novel, you’re probably imagining yourself entrenched in a library somewhere, eating bureaucracy fact s for breakfast. For the crime novel Forensics for Dummies may be involved (or Law & Order re-runs, which appear to be an infinite resource). But what about the fantasy novel? Why do you need to know real world politics for a world you get to make yourself from scratch? The answer is your readers: they have a set of expectations of what politics and espionage and look like, how people respond to them, and how many people are involved at a given time, and so on. One of the things that ASOIAF does so beautifully is the layers of intrigue involved, kings and leaders are often secondary to players like Little Finger, Cercei, Catelyn, and John who are not heads of government. But, that said, if you’ve seen the size of ASOIAF, trying to dig into every layer of your world takes a very, very long time, and we can’t all be George R.R. Martin, or at least, convince our agents that we are before handling then a 200,000 word manuscript for them to laugh at. (I have a 200k manuscript, and let me tell you, they’d be right to laugh. This thing is just excessive. That kind of boundary pushing page length is something probably best put off till book two . . . kidding. Maybe.)
So what do you do? I’ve been using individuals to represent larger blocks of influence. It needs work, though, and is one of the things I’ll be seeking feedback about from editors, though so far betas are responding well. Once again, it comes back to readers: some of them don’t want to have to keep track of forty different political players plus the leadership. (Ask anyone who watches Game of Thrones to tell you every character’s name. There’s a good chance that names like “dragon lady” “red lady” “wolf guy” and “baby Stark”. Another good examples is the Godfather. I love that book but if the name doesn’t end in Corleone, I don’t know who the heck we’re talking about.) Do your research, but then write what you can be bothered to, and let your betas tell you if it feels complex enough to believe. Include what you need to make it feel “real” and so that you understand what you’re doing, and go from there.
Note: Find betas from a variety of political backgrounds (interest backgrounds, etc.) to poll. Half of my friends are international relations and political science majors, they’re more critical than the average reader of how politics are handled, but less sensitive to what they layman might see as political overload. Having a balanced set of betas will tell you more about where your audience will be coming from.