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?

The Travelling Writer

When both writing and travel are important, how do you balance the two?  I’m on the road far too often to not write while travelling, or I’d never get my books finished. Over the years they’ve been written at picnic tables in campsites and parks all over North America; in cafes across the world; in planes and trains and ships; and in tents in Mongolia and cottages in England.

There are three major considerations to writing while travelling: teaching yourself to write anywhere; keeping your work safe, and managing the technology. I didn’t used to be able to write unless I had complete privacy. Some of that was the beginner writer’s desire for secrecy, the reluctance to reveal to the world what I was doing. As I became more confident, and as I had deadlines to meet, that reluctance dissolved. The deeper I am into a story, the easier it is for me to write absolutely anywhere.

If noise distracts you, consider earplugs or listening to music. Or start with planning, writing character sketches, descriptions: background information you’ll need, if you can’t get into your story in a public place. I do better with dialogue; often I’ll fill in the description and actions afterwards, but I can almost always ‘hear’ the discussion between my characters, wherever I am.

Several years ago, just before a 9-week, 4-country, 27-flights trip, I bought a tiny laptop: not a netbook, because I am almost always places without internet. It fits neatly into my backpack, cost me $300 Canadian, and it has SD-card storage, as well as USB. Several points here: if I lose the laptop, or it’s stolen, or broken, it was cheap. Secondly, the removable storage was important. My work is not on the hard drive. It’s saved to the SD card, and to a flash drive, and those two things are kept (separately) on my body with my passport and wallet. Plus, I back up to cloud storage whenever and wherever possible, so my work is as secure as I can make it. It’s easy to get sloppy about doing this, but so far I’ve maintained the discipline…and when my laptop stopped working in Fiji (it didn’t like the 100% humidity) I could relax, knowing I wasn’t losing work. (It began working again back in drier, air-conditioned Canada, and has kept on working ever since.)

Managing the technology is again mostly a matter of discipline. Charge the laptop whenever you can: this means ensuring you have adaptor plugs. Carry a spare charge cord – unlike iPhone charge cords, which I’ve been able to buy everywhere in the world except Antarctica, it’s not easy to get a replacement laptop cord. Because my husband and I have identical laptops, we always have two charging cords. If access to electricity is rare, run your laptop on airplane mode, with the Wifi search off too – it will save power. Dim your screen. Turn it OFF, not to sleep. And of course, carry notebooks and pens or pencils. Writing doesn’t require a laptop – I just prefer it.

Finally, don’t leave your laptop at security after it’s been x-rayed. That may sound self-evident – but for all my experience, I’ve done it twice, in busy airports where security was busy and crowded. Luckily both times we were called back! 

What are your tips for writing when traveling? Please share!