Guest Post: A Lesson in The Futility of Shallow Research

Guest posts

Reading Other People is VERY excited to have James Collins, author of “Sol Limitis” and founder of many relics (see BIO below). Thanks for guest blogging, James!!

I’m not going to start this blog by saying how important research is in crafting a solid novel: that would be as patronising as telling an astrophysicist that they might find maths a bit useful, or a Premier League striker that they should practice penalties.

But I am going to recommend to writers of historical fiction that they should hone such a robust foundation in focused research that they end up so bloated with period detail they can’t blink without some leaking out.

I’m an expert procrastinator, so I like research: it inhabits that nebulous no-man’s land between not doing anything and actually starting to be productive. I can generally bury myself in books for some weeks before I start to get that nagging feeling that I should be committing words to screen.

When I started researching my novel Sol Limitis (the first part of an historical fiction trilogy set in Late Roman Britain) I didn’t think it would be so overwhelming; I held a degree in archaeology, and had specialised in Roman Britain. All I had to do, I thought, was spruce up a few old topics using Wikipedia and I’d be ready to go.

I drafted the concept, and a very rough plot, and did some rather generic research and sat down to sketch out the characters and fatten up the storyline.

And then I stopped, for the first time.

I realised I had hardly any clue about my characters, as I had no sense of familiarity with the day-to-day world they were inhabiting. Without the context of their environment I couldn’t really grasp their motivations or personalities. We are all inexorably shaped by our worlds, our predilections and idiosyncrasies and behaviours, and fiction should be no different.

And as I stuttered and stumbled over my characters, and turned back to their world, I realised that my research had been woefully insufficient.

So I hit the books again: poring through stuffy tomes on 4th century British archaeology and Roman military history. I took copious notes and slashed these down into useable abbreviated versions. And this helped a lot: I was able to return to my characters and the plot and expand on them with much more confidence. I started writing my novel.

And then I stopped again.

Because I realised I didn’t have enough ingrained knowledge of the locale. I couldn’t move in 4th Century Britain, because I had no concept of so many things: the types of clothing, the etiquette, the speech, the architecture, the types of shop-fronts, how the roads were paved. What animals were domesticated then? What food was available? How did the social and military hierarchies work?

Virtually every line I tried to write was hampered by a complete lack of knowledge of the minutiae of daily life.  Without a vision of detail sufficient enough to perceive the layers of grime smearing the townhouse windows (and whether they even had glass windows in the 4th Century…) my writing was stuttering, and I was unable to achieve any measure of flow with my prose.

“The Past is a foreign country,” as novelist LP Hartley once wrote.  “They do things differently there.”

And so I went back and did more granular research, soaking up all the details, reading entire volumes on Romano-British life. Only after I felt as though I was fluent in my period did I begin caressing the keyboard again. I realised that I had to be as familiar with the past as a polyglot is with a second language: to be able to think in the lingo and not have to translate on the go. For my writing, I needed to be able to think and visualise as an inhabitant of 4th Century Britain so I didn’t have to pause to look up facts. Only in this way was I able to produce a coherent novel that didn’t shy away from the necessary descriptive passages and didn’t shirk its duty of a realistic and accurate vision of the past.

Of course I still had moments when I needed to stop and mark passages for fact-checking, or dedicate an hour or so to more specific research before I completed a redraft. But this didn’t impede the overall flow of creativity required for pouring out thousands of words into some kind of comprehensible sequence.

I’m not saying this process is unique to historical fiction: of course research is necessary for every half-decent novel. But some genres more than others lend themselves to exposing their author’s lack of diligence in the planning and crafting of their world. I think, at least in part, this quite onerous burden of research is behind the reason why so many works of historical fiction stretch to multiple volumes: it would be a waste of all that effort to produce a single novel and move on! Instead the existing research can be recycled into a trilogy (and beyond!) with relatively minor additional research, which makes it more efficient, and hence satisfying, for the author and thus the reader.

Which, come to think of it, doesn’t suit me all that well: instead of indulging my procrastinatory tendencies, I might have to knuckle down and just get on with part two of my trilogy!


James Collins is an author, editor, freelance journalist and recovering archaeologist. Born in Stoke on Trent in 1979, he studied archaeology at the University of Nottingham and went on to work as an archaeologist in the UK and abroad. Tired of wallowing in muddy holes for a living, he survived various unsavoury menial jobs before catching his breath in the construction and renewables industries for more years than was healthy. He is currently working towards being self-employed and to be able to get paid for doing what he loves: writing. James also plays and teaches classical guitar and spends most of his spare time studying the Daoist arts.


Twitter: @JamesDomCollins