I’m honored to be part of Back Porch Reflections today to discuss research. If Jackie would allow me, before we dive into the interview portion, I’d like to give a few do’s and don’ts that would have been big helps before I first tackled research for my writing.
DO work within your strengths, without trying to replicate someone else’s method.
DO recognize that google and Wikipedia are wonderful, but used alone they can do more harm than good.DON’T feel that you must travel to a location used in your novel to be considered credible.
DON’T spend more than necessary. Money that is, not time. Lots of time will be required.
Why do you feel those suggestions are so important to emphasis?
Other than those are the ones I wasted the most time and stress over? I kid but honestly, I’d become so discouraged whenever I would come across an author who is photographed standing in front of the Great Pyramids, or the Statue of Liberty, etc. and think… will anyone take me seriously because I haven’t been to Rome or stood in the Coliseum? While I would love to be able to do that, it’s not practical for me at this time. The same with purchasing source material like reference books, text books, documentary DVD’s, etc. It’s more work to utilize your local library resources but I shudder at what it would have cost to purchase all the source material I used. This can backfire, so keep a list of titles and authors with the material taken from that source since you won’t be able to pull a book from your shelf and flip for the highlights. And the internet, Lord help us, reminds me of a potluck supper at church. You’re putting a lot of faith in how that potato salad has been prepared, and the quality of its ingredients with no way to check. This should go without saying but use discretion and if at all possible, be sure the information is at least consistent with what you have learned or will learn through other sources.
How much research went into Chasing the Lion, your first manuscript?
That’s almost two separate answers. As my debut novel, a fair amount of craft study happened in conjunction with my research for the novel, but all together, I would say over the past nine months roughly eighty to a hundred hours. Of those hours, about 65% pertained to Ancient Rome in the Flavian Dynasty and gladiator life and culture throughout Roman history.
What were your sources and how did you find them?For craft study, I went to the local library and found the correct section and skimmed the spines. I pulled the ones that looked like they would be helpful, and checked their publication dates. Anything older than ten years I chose to pass up, since I felt anything older than that would be outdated, especially if related to publishing. Also as I began to research agents, I found many of them make recommendations on craft study books and the titles I saw repeatedly recommended across the board, like Noah Lukeman’s THE FIRST FIVE PAGES, I made sure I requested at the library. Fortunately my library carried it, but that would I probably would have purchased since it was recommended so often.
For the novel, I did the same but with the search feature of the online catalogue for the topics I needed to know about, such as gladiators, early Christianity, life in Ancient Rome, etc. I also did a fair amount of research online, reading articles, perusing various websites, and Netflix of all things proved very helpful. Several documentaries were available there that aided my research tremendously, though one was a bust and a complete waste of time. Fortunately I had done enough research at that point to know their facts were incorrect or skewed.Did you find conflicting information often and if so, how did you handle that?
Not often, I think about three or four times. In those cases, I let the majority rule and adopted the view or facts supported by the most sources.
Would you share an example of one of those conflicts?
Well the most frustrating for me as a follower of Christ was whether or not Jesus truly was the son of God or, and I’m quoting here, “a criminal justly executed under the laws of Rome for attempted subversion.”That ‘expert’ made me furious, but in fairness I chose to take that with a grain of salt because it forced me into a broader view of my setting. That was the question two thousand years ago just as much as it is today. Though how anyone can believe Jesus Christ was just a man is beyond me, but that’s another conversation all together.
One I never could resolve was whether or not Caesar Domitian’s predecessor, his brother Titus, died of fever or Domitian had him poisoned. That’s a fairly substantial conflict, but since only one source supported poisoning, and at least seven blamed fever, I went with fever.
A great tip I wish I had figured out sooner is flip to the back of your non-fiction research books. When I compared three I felt were the best written, most informative and authoritative, I found something very interesting. A few of the source books in the bibliographies were consistent in all three, so I went and found those research books the authors used to write the books I was using for research. That was very rewarding and made my time more efficient.
Any last tips or word of advice in closing?Don’t try to fit all that great research into your novel. I know, I know… because I too felt like all that became wasted if I didn’t work it in, but it’s not. There’s a fine line between being rich in period detail and overwhelming the story. If you aren’t careful you’ll end up with a narrative non-fiction with a side order of novel and no one is going to contract that.
To give you some idea, only about 10% of everything I learned while researching for Chasing the Lion is actually a part of the finished novel. I’m comfortable stating this is normal, but if you go too far the other direction and pull just enough facts to include to get by, that will be easy to spot as well.
Lastly, think big and go for it. I came across the name of the technical advisor for the Ridley Scott/ Russell Crowe film Gladiator and found her e-mail. To my delight, Professor Coleman at Harvard not only answered my e-mail, but sent me copies of all her published articles I requested. So while you tell yourself all they can say is no, sometimes they say yes, but you won’t know if you don’t try.
Nancy, thanks so much for joining us today.
To learn more about Nancy visit her blog: