Tuesday, 19 April 2016

Alison Morton on Taming Research!

Alison Morton is my guest today, with advice on how to tame research. I’ve known Alison for a few years, through Twitter, the Romantic Novelists’ Association, and the Historical Novel Society ("HNS"); and we've got to know each other especially well over the past year whilst working on publicity for the upcoming Historical Novel Society conference in Oxford (I'm Publicity Officer, and Alison is Assistant Publicity Officer, as well as an Indie Co-ordinator)

Last Tuesday, I met Alison for lunch at the London Book Fair (I attended as my alter-ego, neetsmarketing) to talk about the HNS conference publicity, and later on that day, I went to the launch for Alison’s latest thriller in the Roma Nova series, INSURRECTIO, where I got my hands on a signed paperback, and met up with some lovely author friends. Here's a selfie from our lunch:

Thank you, Alison for taking the time to write this post, and over to you!...

Getting organised – taming your research, by Alison Morton

Research. Yeah, I know, a sticky subject in more ways than one. Writing of any sort needs research whether it’s a modern shoes-and-shopping story, fantasy, crime thriller or a historical magnum opus. Readers will engage with your story as long as you keep their trust. So your story has to be plausible (even the elves...). Strongly coupled with this is the internal consistency of your book’s world, especially if it’s historical, science fiction or gritty urban crime. Readers investing their precious reading time in a rather strange place is high-risk for them. So you must build that world carefully and thoroughly or your credibility will crumble.

Leaving aside the cracking plot you’ve dreamed up, its setting has to be woven into the story. You have to know the scenery, weather, what the inhabitants look like, their clothes, beliefs and values, do they use buses, trains, horses, or just plod everywhere on foot? Can they vote and/or are they subject to a lord or lady’s whim?

Where do you start looking? What resources do you have or can reach without breaking the bank? And how do you organize what you’ve amassed?

Let’s get practical!

1. Identify what do you need
For my latest Roma Nova thriller, INSURRECTIO, I already had a g
ood general background in history, politics and economics with geography thrown in and a small specialist library of books on Roman life, women in Rome, and modern military women from writing previous books in the series. But for this new one I needed information about military tactics and weaponry, police procedures, journey times, internal government procedures, mounting a coup d’état, dictatorships and resistance organisation.

Of course, if you’re writing a romance around an ice-cream shop, you’ll need to dig into recipes, different types of milk, cream and flavourings, food handling and hygiene standards, tourism, supply systems within the catering industry, landlord and tenancy regulations, employment law, shop-fitting, weather patterns, etc.

You may already know something about those topics; I’d been in the military and studied women in military roles and living under a dictatorship, but I sat down and read up on the things I knew I’d forgotten. My advice is to immerse yourself in the period/world first so that your writing flows naturally when you come to draft the story.

2. Focus your research
Draw up a list of questions with spaces in-between, then sit down and write a short paragraph in answer to each. For example, what kind of climate does your setting have? In Roma Nova, it’s a merge of mountain with Mediterranean, which means longish summers; snow, high alps and pine trees in the mountains; grapes and olives in the lower land; and dust and heat in mid-August in the city. This will not only help your brain remember specifics subconsciously as you write, but will be a valuable reference tool if you forget something!

3. Note your sources
Always jot down where you found your information whether online or in the library or notes taken at a workshop. If you’re a normal human being, you will forget. If I take a photo of something fabulous in a museum, I always take one of the label; was that vase from the 1st century BC or AD? If your heroine is looking through a contract, what’s the reference for the Sales and Supply of Goods Act being replaced by the Consumer Rights Act? And where did you read the difference between a Glock and a Sig Sauer?

4. Don’t exclude anything
Printed sources are obvious, but don’t discount the Internet. Wikipedia has improved exponentially in the past few years and the bibliographies and references at the end of articles can yield rich pickings. These references can be easily stored  - see 4 below – but be ready to record and organise photos, podcasts, film and interviews. A smartphone is very handy for this as long as you download content to your online storage as soon as you can.

5. Files or files?
I’m a digital creature, so I tend to photograph, scan and store everything online. But I back up to Dropbox, to an external hard disk called Time Machine and lastly, to a remote storage server ‘somewhere in Kansas’. (Actually, it’s in the Netherlands.) Instead of bookmarks for virtual links, I use Protopage computer desktop organiser where I can organize my references into discrete groupings:  my books, Roman, other research, writing technique, dictionaries and glossaries, marketing/PR, self-publishing and that ubiquitous one ‘General’. Protopage is a free programme and you can just scroll down if you don’t want to see the adverts at the top.

I have a few paper-based files, mostly newspaper clippings, brochures, maps including an FAA one of flight paths over Washington and New York – absolutely mesmerising! I carry a notebook when I’m out to jot down overheard conversations or little gestures people make, and to note information and sources other people give me. I’ve usually taken a photo on my phone if it’s a building. And of course reference books are the stalwarts of research on which tend to use Post-it notes; I simply cannot bring myself to write on them.

My last piece of advice: whether writing historical, contemporary, crime or alternate history like my Roma Nova thrillers, be meticulous and methodical, whatever method you choose to organise your research.

Thank you for such a helpful post, Alison. I look forward to using your tips to re-organise my mountain of research books on the eighteenth century, newspaper articles, country house guidebooks, online articles and scribbled notes! Protopage looks especially helpful. Congratulations on the launch of INSURRECTIO, and best wishes for continued success with your novels!

Find out more about Alison and INSURRECTIO below:


‘The second fall of Rome?’
Aurelia Mitela, ex-Praetorian and imperial councillor in Roma Nova, scoffs at her intelligence chief when he throws a red file on her desk.

But early 1980s Roma Nova, the last province of the Roman Empire that has survived into the twentieth century, has problems – a ruler frightened of governing, a centuries-old bureaucracy creaking for reform and, worst of all, a rising nationalist movement with a charismatic leader.

Horrified when her daughter is brutally attacked in a demonstration turned riot, Aurelia tries to rally resistance to the growing fear and instability. But it may already be too late to save Roma Nova from meltdown and herself from entrapment and destruction by her lifelong enemy.…

Alison Morton's bio 

Even before she pulled on her first set of combats, Alison Morton was fascinated by the idea of women soldiers. Brought up by a feminist mother and an ex-military father, it never occurred to her that women couldn’t serve their country in the armed forces. Everybody in her family had done time in uniform and in theatre all over the globe.

Busy in her day job, Alison joined the Territorial Army in a special communications regiment and left as a captain, having done all sorts of interesting and exciting things no civilian would ever know or see. Or that she can talk about, even now…

But something else fuels her writing… Fascinated by the mosaics at Ampurias (Spain), at their creation by the complex, power and value-driven Roman civilisation she started wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by strong women.
Alison lives in France and writes Roman-themed thrillers with tough heroines.

INCEPTIO, the first in the Roma Nova series
– shortlisted for the 2013 International Rubery Book Award
– B.R.A.G. Medallion
– finalist in 2014 Writing Magazine Self-Published Book of the Year
PERFIDITAS, second in series
– B.R.A.G. Medallion
– finalist in 2014 Writing Magazine Self-Published Book of the Year
SUCCESSIO, third in series
– Historical Novel Society’s indie Editor’s Choice for Autumn 2014
– B.R.A.G. Medallion
– Editor’s choice, The Bookseller’s inaugural Indie Preview, December 2014
AURELIA, fourth in series, the first of a new cycle of three
– Historical Novel Society’s indie Editor’s Choice for Autumn 2015
– Shortlisted for the 2016 HNS Indie Award
– B.R.A.G. Medallion

Fact file:
Education: BA French, German & Economics, MA History
Memberships: International Thriller Writers, Historical Novel Society, Alliance of Independent Authors, Society of Authors, Romantic Novelists’ Association
Represented by Blake Friedman Literary Agency for overseas and ancillary rights

Social media links:
Connect with Alison on her Roma Nova site
Twitter: @alison-morton

INSURRECTIO book trailer


  1. Thank you for having me as your guest, Anita. Always happy to pass on things I've learnt, whether the hard way or the easy way!

    1. You're welcome, Alison! Was lovely to see you at the London Book Fair last week.

  2. Excellent advice, Alison. I'll have to investigate Protopage as my research is often a horrible jumble by the time I've finished and often impossible to find that elusive, almost forgotten link I need.

    1. Thanks for commenting, Mary. I've also added Protopage to my to-do list!