Applying research

Research papersResearch. Yeah, I know, a sticky subject in more ways than one. Writing of any sort needs research whether it’s a modern shoes-and-shopping story, crime thriller or a historical magnum opus.

Almost every story written hinges on a set-up or a problem the writer has purposefully created, but it must be plausible. Readers will engage with it and follow as long as the writer keeps their attention and, most importantly, their trust. So your story has to look and feel real (even the elves...).

Ostia Antica1Strongly coupled with this is internal consistency, essential in any science fiction, fantasy or historical setting. Readers want to step out of reality for a few hours; investing their precious reading time in a rather strange place is high-risk for them. So build your world carefully and thoroughly or your credibility will crumble.

Leaving aside the cracking story you’ve dreamed up or that tale from history you want to tell, what about the setting? It has to be woven into the story or there’s no point in using that background. So you have to know the scenery, weather, what the inhabitants and look like, their clothes, whether they accept strangers, what do they believe in, do they use buses, trains, horses, or just plod everywhere on foot? Can they vote and/or are they subject to a lord or lady’s whim?

I have a list of questions that I print out with space in-between each one. I then sit down and write a paragraph on each. This seems to go into my head better than if I type it on the keyboard.

Temple of Portunus - In the Forum Boarium, site of ancient Roman cattle market

Temple of Portunus – In the Forum Boarium, site of ancient Roman cattle market

Even though I write alternative history stories about Roma Nova, an imaginary country, and the first three are set in the present, I need to do research, especially if I’m dipping back into Roma Nova’s past before it diverged from the standard timeline. And if I’m researching modern surveillance equipment or sniper rifles, I need to check the specifications very carefully as they may be vital to the plot development.

I read around the setting(s), both good fiction and straightforward reference material. I’ll exclude everything else ruthlessly. I’m heard muttering in corners about Roman marriage customs, spotted looking up railway schedules or crop harvest times, how many days it took in ancient times to travel from Portus Itius/Gesoriacum (Boulogne) to Rome. Damn. Has Gesoriacum changed its name to Bononia by the 4th century? Maps of archaeological digs and airline timetables start littering my desk along with reference books on childhood illness and police procedure. My colour-coded Filofax pages fill up. Bookmarked articles gather in wobbly formation on my computer desktop…

Where to stopSo where do you stop? Outside factors decide it sometimes – a publisher deadline, competition date, your own publishing schedule. But for me, a moment arrives when I have finished the first run-through of all my research notes and I’m ‘in the zone’. I’m ready to plunge into the writing.

When I emerge and re-read write that first draft, I mark up the bits of research I’ve allowed to make an appearance in the manuscript. Much of what I collected in my early research notes has gone into my mental and digital archive and will stay there.

Then I check everything again. I nearly had somebody sail from Rutupiae (Richborough) in the second half of 4th century. By then, Portus Dubris (Dover) was much more prominent as both a civilian and military port, even that late in the Roman occupation of Britain.

So my modus operandi (or M.O. for crime types) can be summed up in three points –

1. do your broad research;
2. write your story;
3. double check everything.

Happy writing!


Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers, INCEPTIO, and PERFIDITAS. Third in series, SUCCESSIO, is now out.

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1 comment to Applying research

  • Alison

    We’ve all been jolted out of a story by something we know is wrong and isn’t it irritating? Not all readers will notice; some don’t care, they just like the story. But even if one person notices, then we’ve failed.

    A genuine mistake can be forgiven. Sometimes an author has shifted event by a year or two deliberately for the sake of the plot, but they usually make a note of that in an afterword. No, it’s sloppiness that takes the biscuit!