The Travelling Writer Part 2: The Research Trip #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

Visiting the setting of your planned or in-progress novel? A few suggestions on using your time well.

In the summer of 2019, with my work-in-progress, Empire’s Reckoning, well on its way to completion, and the outline of the book after that, Empire’s Heir, forming in my mind, I realized a trip to Rome would be useful.  I write alternate-world historical fiction, the world in question an analogue of Europe after the (apparent) fall of Rome, but with real differences in culture, geography and history. The capital city of the Eastern Empire in my series, Casil, is a cross between Rome and Byzantium:  Rome in geography, but politically a blend.

In a previous book in the series, I’d used the marvelous Rome Reborn videos to structure my city, so it is, effectively, 4th C Rome. But only about a quarter of Empire’s Exile takes place in Casil; probably 2/3 of Empire’s Heir will. And the buildings and public areas will play an important role. I wanted to go there, to look at the ruins, understand their relationship to each other better, imagine myself there.

We divide our time between Canada and England, spending our winters in the UK county of Norfolk. A quick trip to Rome is easy: Norwich Airport is 45 minutes away: hop to Amsterdam on KLM and then on to Rome. So I booked a trip, and a guide, and now I’m sitting in the airport waiting for my flight to be called and thinking – and blogging – about how to prepare for a research trip. Especially since life and other work got in the way, the WIP isn’t done, and the book I’m preparing for hasn’t had the thought and outlining I’d hoped it would at this point. It would be very easy to be overwhelmed by what there is to see in Rome.

This isn’t my first research trip – I dragged my long-suffering husband to Hadrian’s Wall in March a few years ago, and we’re headed to northern Scotland in April – but it’s definitely the most intense. Here’s my experiential advice for using your time well.

  • Develop a plot.  This sounds obvious, I know. Just a vague idea isn’t going to work in this case. Without spoilers, I know that my MC will be moving between a palace and a forum, down a certain set of stairs, and that the temples that were extant in the forum in the 4th C will be important. I know that the view from the palace matters, as do sightlines and distances…the actual, physical realities of moving around the city. Travel will matter quite a bit. Knowing all this means I can focus on those particular factors – and, to be practical – buy the right tickets to the right sites.  
  • Do preparatory research.  The Forum, for example, is a big area. Not all the buildings were there in the 4th C. What was? What was the building’s role then – if it was built in the 1st C as a temple, was it still used that way?  What stood where the 7th C building is now?  What do we know about what a building – exterior and interior – looked like in the 4th C?  What role did buildings and public areas play in the 4th C city?
  • Know what questions to ask. This is an extension of #2, but also, if you’re using a guide – either private or group – ask whatever comes into your mind. They may well know, or know where to send you to find out.
  • Take photos, if you need to.  I probably won’t take many. I have a very visual memory – but certain details, and certain views, will need recording. Write notes as you go. Use voice recording on your phone, if that works for you. Don’t trust your memory, especially on an intense, busy trip.
  • Be open to new ideas, new locations – if something really catches your eye, maybe you want to include it. The one-time farmhouse that houses the Vindolanda museum just south of Hadrian’s Wall became the model for a school in my books, although I hadn’t intended that at all when I visited.
  • Know how to follow up. After this trip, I’ll be going back to the Rome Reborn videos, and to a FutureLearn course I signed up for, which also focuses on virtual reconstruction of Rome.
  • Pace yourself, both mentally and physically. I’m nearly 62. I don’t have the energy I did at 25, or 40. But not only am I planning half-day tours for my physical stamina, but also for my mental focus. I need time not only to absorb what I’ve seen, but to write my impressions and my thoughts, and notes about what I need to do further research on, and what I’ve seen that might change my plot. Otherwise, it will all become a blur of sights and sounds and sore feet.

(And anyhow, there should be time to just sit at a sidewalk café, and watch the world go by, shouldn’t there?)

What are your tips for a successful research trip?

Author: marianlthorpe

Not content with two careers as a research scientist and an educator, Marian L Thorpe decided to go back to what she’d always wanted to do and be a writer. Author of the alternative world medieval trilogy Empire’s Legacy, Marian also has published short stories and poetry. Her life-long interest in Roman and post-Roman European history informs her novels, while her avocations of landscape archaeology and birding provide background to her settings. As well as writing and editing professionally, Marian oversees Arboretum Press, a small publishing imprint run as a collective. Marian is currently writing Empire's Reprise, the trilogy following Empire's Legacy.

9 thoughts on “The Travelling Writer Part 2: The Research Trip #AuthorToolboxBlogHop”

  1. I cannot agree enough with the importance of preparatory research; it changes the way that you look at the world around you! Understanding the significance of the things you see and hear can help you to take more effective notes and get more from the experience as a whole!

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  2. I went to Rome as part of a small European tour with my husband a little over a year ago. While it was a vacation for us, I had hoped to use the trip as research for my book since it’s set in Europe and we were traveling to several of the locations. I really wish I had been as prepared as you. I found myself getting flustered as I was torn between savoring the moment and taking mental notes for my novel. Dictation or voice memos are a great idea for days when you’re on the go and can’t sit to jot down everything. I’ll have to keep that in mind for future trips. Great post! I’m a sucker for travel.

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    1. It is hard to do both – I know I need the time to simply imagine my characters in the setting. But there are a number of things I just note, then investigate further later, even when the entire focus of the trip is research. Keeping your phone fully charged is important, too, when it’s both camera and voice recorder!

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  3. I have done two research trips for books so far, and I was NOT as prepared as you. I’m surprised at myself, because I love being prepared, but I really couldn’t settle on plot until I could see HOW things could play out. Maybe it’s because I write thrillers/mysteries? I’m not sure, but I really love how you’ve got some basic settings that you need, and you know what they are. I would feel better doing a book research trip the way you’ve outlined it.

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