How many hours? Planning research for a historically-based novel: #authortoolboxbloghop

The books I write are quasi-historical: they are set in a world with strong similarities to northern Europe after the decline of Rome. There are significant differences, but many of the events that shape it are based on real history. For my first two books, I was lucky – years of immersing myself in the Roman and post-Roman history of Britannia meant I had little actual research to do, except fact-checking. But the third took me out of the Britannia analogue – and into the library.

As I prepare to write the fifth full novel in the series, I am expanding into both a geography and a political history I know less about. So it’s time for more research, and in this month’s #authortoolboxbloghop, I look at how I do that.

When I say research, I mean major research, not the quick Google search for ‘how many public bread ovens were there in Rome’. (One for every 350 people, roughly, if you care.) Without giving too much away, the plot of Empire’s Heir, the next book, takes place mostly in Casil, my Rome analogue, and involves the politics of power as they rest in a high ranking, and therefore highly marriageable, young woman.

So, what major topics did I need to research this time?

Setting: Rome in the 4th C, which is the time in Rome’s history I chose to base my physical city on;

Character background: the education of an heiress to a country’s leadership in early-medieval Europe;

Politics: the politics and practicalities of marriage alliances.

(In other books, it’s been battles, and ship construction, and travel times between Rome and Britannia, and Viking travel into continental Europe and Byzantium…whatever you’re writing about, you need to define what you’ll have to spend time researching.)

Let’s look at those topics one at a time.

Setting:  Part of one of my earlier books takes place in Casil, so I’ve already done a fair bit of research. Three sources have been particularly useful

  1. Video reconstructions
  2. Ancient maps
  3. A research trip to Rome, with a private guide. (I realize this is a luxury out of the reach of many, but good guidebooks to ancient Rome could have been substituted, especially used in conjunction with the video reconstructions.)

What I have now are sources to refer to, and a fair understanding of the geography of Rome. Between watching the videos, taking an on-line course on ancient Rome, studying the maps and actually going to Rome, I’ve spent about two weeks – call it 80 hours – on this prior to beginning to write the book. I need to spend another 10 or so, I think, working with a map and the structures of buildings in conjunction with the plot of my story.  Where are the stairs she’ll need to access? How long did it take to get from the Forum to the Pantheon on foot?  What’s the easiest route for a character who is physically disabled to travel?

Character background: the education of an heiress to a country’s leadership in early-medieval Europe. I’m using a number of sources here, some on-line, more not: several new books on early-medieval women wait to be read. I did both a literature search, and asked some friends whose research area this is, to find the books to read. 40 hours here, for a solid understanding.

Politics: the politics and practicalities of marriage alliances.  Again, more reading; some will be covered in the other books; some will be separate. I estimate 30 hours.

In total, I expect to spend 160 hours in major research prior to writing. Four forty-hour weeks. Some of it’s already done, so now perhaps I have 80 hours to do, or 2 full weeks. But I can’t devote 40 hours a week to research – while I work as a writer & editor full time, that includes all sorts of other writing (like this blog post), my editorial work, and promotion and marketing. Call it 6 weeks, then (providing I don’t find myself going down fascinating rabbit-holes of trivia.)

As fascinating as I find all this, I can’t focus on one subject for too long. So I will divide it up –  a couple of partial days spent on the mapping and logistics (which I love, and can easily hyperfocus on); a couple of partial days spent on reading. The advantage, too, of doing it this way will be the cross-pollination of ideas that will occur – because while I have an overall plot outline, it will be the research that fills it out and provides details and plot twists I won’t necessarily have thought of. But it also means I won’t start the actual novel until September.

Sometimes I envy writers who get to make it all up!

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Romans in Africa, Africans in Rome

We first meet my character Druisius, one of the two MCs of Empress & Soldier, in the last third of Empire’s Exile, when he’s assigned to guard the party of travellers from the lost West who have unexpectedly arrived in Casil. (If you’re new to my series or this blog, Casil is an analogue of Rome, in most ways.) Druisius is a palace guard and a musician, and were my world real, he’d be of African origin.

“I am different.” He was, of course, his dark skin making him stand out in Linrathe and Sorham. In Ésparias, where men from the southern coast and Leste served on the Wall, his appearance wasn’t remarkable, a matter of degree rather than sharp contrast.

Empire’s Reckoning

The Phoenicians, Greece and then Rome had traded with north and northwest Africa from about 900 BCE (Carthage was founded about 800 BCE) and among the trade goods were grain and salt, olive oil, gold and pottery. Rome controlled north Africa for about 500 years.

But goods from further south were also brought to Carthage and other trading centres, and Rome, always looking for efficiencies, sent perhaps up to five expeditions into sub-Saharan Africa. (They also wanted, at one point, to circumnavigate the continent, but that appears to not have happened.)

In 21 BC, Lucius Cornelius Balbus, Proconsul of Africa, sent troops as far south as the Niger River (Manding: Jeliba or Joliba “great river”; Igbo: Orimiri or Orimili “great water”;  Tuareg: Egerew n-Igerewen “river of rivers“) in part to subdue the Garamantes people who had a nasty habit of disrupting trade caravans passing through their territories. Sixty or so years later, Suetonius Paulinus led an army across the Atlas range and possibly to the borders of modern-day Senegal. Two expeditions to Lake Chad occurred in the first century CE, and possibly one that travelled into modern-day Nigeria.

Roman military leaders kept detailed records (ok, Rome kept records of everything, pretty well) and much of what we know of these explorations comes from Pliny the Elder. But archaeological evidence also suggests that trade continued well after Rome declined as a world power. Analysis of copper-based objects in Burkina Faso shows the origin of the ore to be in the Eastern Mediterranean, and dating from the 3rd to 7th C of the common era.

So – back to Druisius. Rome was a cosmopolitan city; its colonies were, too, in part because one of its strategies was to send legions of young men far away from home, where they couldn’t lead rebellions against their land’s Roman rulers. Historian and archaeologist Anthony Birley, in his book Septimius Severus: The African Emperor notes that between 193 and 211 CE eight men of African origin commanded Roman legions in the north. Severus himself was of Libyan origin, and is portrayed in contemporary portraits as dark-skinned.  So there is nothing unusual about Druisius in my city of Casil – or among the troops who, like Druisius in Empress & Soldier, are sent to the Empire’s frontiers.

Septimus Severus and his family. Tempera on wood. Acquired from Egypt in 1932 CE. from Roman Egypt c. 200 CE. It is on display at the Altes Museum in Berlin, Germany. Photo by Osama Shukir Muhammed Amin

The featured image is a bust of the Emperor Caracalla, Septimus Severus’s son. His mother, Julia Domna, was Syrian.

Map of Roman Africa: Eric Gaba (Sting – fr:Sting), modified by Gigillo83, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Travelling Writer Part 2: The Research Trip #AuthorToolboxBlogHop

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?