Down the Research Rabbit Hole #4 – with JT Clay

Research Rabbit Holes can be fabulously inspirational, or horribly time wasting. They can take you in directions that are wildly irrelevant to your story, or can help you add layers of authenticity and meaning to your work. In this series of blog posts I’m sharing some of my favourite journeys down these Research Rabbit Holes, and I’ve also asked some other writers about their experiences falling into these diabolical black holes of eternal fascination.

Today’s guest is JT Clay, who writes books as bitingly funny as they are thrilling and adventure-packed. Prior to focussing her career on writing, she worked in counter-terrorism and law before switching to waste management, which generated much more dinner-party debate. People care about rubbish. She now works as a technical writer and looks after her mixed-species family. A Single Girl’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse won a 2010 Olvar Wood Fellowship Award and is her first published novel. She lives in Canberra, which she claims is not as dull as people say, but she is notorious for making things up.

Pork Sausage

My first novel, A Single Girl’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse, involved more research than you’d imagine. I watched Bear Grylls on repeat, read up on SAS survival techniques and hung out in zombie chat rooms (which are exactly as weird as you’d expect).

Lately, I’ve been working on a time-travel farce set in Auckland in the Roaring Twenties. Although a sci-fi comedy, I approached it like a historical project. I read textbooks, biographies and fiction written during and about the period. I browsed old photos. I watched reams of period TV and endured The Great Gatsby in many, many formats. I kept a log of anachronistic terms and discovered, for instance, that back then you could take your gimp in hand and make love, in public, without social or legal repercussions.

So when Leife asked me to blog about research, I jumped at the chance. I’d already done the groundwork.

When I began writing this time-travel farce, I gave myself a three-week research holiday, during which I wrote only notes. No outlines, no scenes, no dialogue. No fiction. Between the library and the Internet, this research cost only my time.

A lot of primary material lives online. I watched Charlie Chaplin reels. I perused posters exhorting men to ‘grow a mustache – that’s one thing the girls can’t do!’ I listened to old Dippermouth sing and heard a Model T Ford sputter down the road. I read the ‘Auckland Star’ and ‘New Zealand Truth’ for the month of February 1923. I found a recipe for asparagus ices.

What can’t you get off the Internet?

Smells, it turns out. My biggest problem was working out what the place smelled like. I tried searching the Web for scratch ‘n’ sniff sites. Don’t do it. The results are unsavoury.

So I did what any decent author does. I made it up. As a result, I’m much more sympathetic to all those fantasy novels that open with a standard stinky wharf description. They may not be original, but they’re tangible, and more importantly, they meet reader expectations.

I’ve learned about those.

There’s a duel in my novel. If you’re thinking that a duel in 1923 Auckland sounds unlikely, you’d be right. But not impossible, with Auckland’s final duel being fought in 1935.

I couldn’t decide whether my hero would select pistols or swords. Then I heard about Bismarck’s sausage duel, featuring two pork sausages, one laced with roundworm. More of an eating contest really, but an exciting one.

And why not? I was writing a farce, after all. A specialist historian had offered to review the whole thing for free. All I had to do was take copious notes so that, when he challenged the pork sausage incident, I could defend myself.

But first, I tried it out on my partner. The idea, not the pork sausage. The ‘scratch n sniff’ Web search had turned me off practical experimentation by this stage.

My partner nixed it.

But it really happened! Or it would have, if Bismarck hadn’t chickened out.

He didn’t care. It didn’t matter. Too silly, he said. Stick to the pistols.

So I slouched off and learned how to fire a Webley Mark IV revolver via an Internet demonstration delivered by an alarmingly bearded Texan who sounded familiar. I may have met him before in a zombie chat room.

What’s the moral? Do your research, but remember – authenticity beats accuracy every time.


J.T. Clay
Author of A Single Girl’s Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse

Down the Research Rabbit Hole #2 – with Donna Maree Hanson

Research Rabbit Holes can be fabulously inspirational, or horribly time wasting. They can take you in directions that are wildly irrelevant to your story, or can help you add layers of authenticity and meaning to your work. In this series of blog posts I’m sharing some of my favourite journeys down these Research Rabbit Holes, and I’ve also asked some other writers about their experiences falling into these diabolical black holes of eternal fascination.

My first guest is Donna Maree Hanson, author of Shatterwing and Skywatcher, the two books in the dark fantasy Dragonwine series.

Dragonwine Postcard


Since the moon shattered, the once peaceful and plentiful world has become a desolate wasteland. Factions fight for ownership of the remaining resources as pieces of the broken moon rain down, bringing chaos, destruction and death.

The most precious of these resources is dragon wine – a life-giving drink made from the essence of dragons. But the making of the wine is perilous and so is undertaken by prisoners. Perhaps even more dangerous than the wine production is the Inspector, the sadistic ruler of the prison vineyard who plans to use the precious drink to rule the world.

There are only two people that stand in his way. Brill, a young royal rebel who seeks to bring about revolution, and Salinda, the prison’s best vintner and possessor of a powerful and ancient gift that she is only beginning to understand. To stop the Inspector, Salinda must learn to harness her power so that she and Brill can escape, and stop the dragon wine from falling into the wrong hands.

Dragon Wine Book 2 :Skywatcher, the follow on book is also available in ebook and print from Momentum.

Thanks for agreeing to come on my blog! Tell me something about what you’re working on now.

I have a few books in progress and around the place so I’ll tell you about Ruby Heart because I have done quite a bit of research into that as it is a Victorian paranormal romance/gothic horror meld.

What sort of research did you need to do to write this story?

I have a motto. Never let research get in the way of a good story. Once I’ve started I don’t usually stop to research something unless it is majorly critical. I can get sucked into a vortex and not emerge for days and then it can take me a while to get back into drafting. That’s not saying I don’t research. I do.

Ruby Heart required a bit of research and trawling books and the internet for resources and double checking events and fashions. For example, people often equate the bustle with Victorian dress, but the Victorian era was quite long and the bustle (I believe there were two periods of bustles) was rather short lived. I love the bustle, but my heroine, Jemima Hardcastle, isn’t quite into that period yet so she wears bell shaped skirts. Also, there’s lots to read about what a young woman was expected to do in that era. Then there is working out what a classical education was. Now, I love researching England. I’ve been there a number of times and will go back. Last time I went I wanted to go into the sewers. I researched what I could on the internet, but it’s not the same. The sewers are only open in London for a short period in summer. Bugger! So I found a tour in Brighton. I held off booking it because we wanted to check if someone wanted to join us and when I went back to book the places were full and no more tours until 2016. So I still have the sewers to explore. The lesson here is be very focussed on your research if you are paying lots of money to travel! Lucky an author friend gave me a couple of books on what’s beneath London to ease my pain.

The world of Shatterwing is based on a couple of fascinating premises. How did your research for Shatterwing help you build your world?

I’ve been working on this series for a very long time so I’m harking back to the deep dark past here. I did some basic research on dragons…just the mythology and how dragons are represented in a number of cultures. I also did a bit about astronomy, but I’m a pretty bad study there so I had the help of a scientist to make sure my errors weren’t glaring. If there are mistakes they are all mine. Most of the research I did for this particular book was to really sit down and work out which were my favourite fantasy novels and why. For example, I love the Wheel of Time Series (a long time ago now) by Robert Jordan. I realised I that I loved the back story the most—the history, the mysterious devices, the clues that there was something vast and awe inspiring there before. So I wanted to invent something like that; rich in history. I also really liked The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant; for that I think the characters are important and so on. I also love both science fiction and science fantasy, so elements of those genres exist therein Shatterwing also. What I didn’t do is read any books with dragons depicted in them. I think in doing that I was able to put my own slant on these creatures. That’s a case of not researching working best. I was also able to draw on contemporaneous events to fuel the imagination, such as the Boxing Day Tsunami. It helped inspire one small flash back scene. Terrorism also feeds into my work on Dragon Wine.

What was the weirdest thing you had to research?

I usually do background research in my day job as well as novel writing. Sometimes the research done for work comes in useful for writing. I look into amazing stuff that I never would do normally – eg how crude oil is refined; how fuel is distributed around Australia. I’ve also looked at geothermal power generation, such as Rankine systems and fracking. You should see that fracking equipment up close! I did. But you know these questions of yours make me realise how disorganised I am and how I need to be more methodical particularly in keeping track of my research at home. I think about how I want to be and measure it against what I do and I’m sadly disappointed in me.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing your research turned up?

Well I’m a bit of a sponge and due to my day job my head gets filled with a lot of interesting stuff. For me I like it when research turns up ideas for stories. They are the flint spark to the tinder! I’m trying to wrack my brain here…what is the most interesting…I know…I read a book on the workings of the human brain and how the eye and brain perceive colour. I remember being gobsmacked by that. Oh yeah and the Hayflick limit about cell division and senescence. I remember attending a lecture when that was discussed and it blew my mind. That actually featured into my first novel. Not published, but it was fun at the time.

How does research fit into your writing process? Do you research first, then write, or do you research as you write?

I think I’m researching all the time but not in a directed way until I come upon a need. Everything goes into my brain and is refined into parts of story or character. Research is living and learning. Then there is the book reading, documentary watching and internet searching (maps etc),  which is equally important to me. So I may do bits of research and make notes, like with Ruby Heart…a certain amount at the beginning to serve as a launch board. Then I may do a bit in the middle but that’s dangerous, because I can get derailed and then I do more after the first draft to fill in holes and gaps and to improve the work. So when I’m drafting, like I said above, don’t let research get in the way of a good story.

Is research a distraction or an inspiration?

Neither when life is in harmony. I think it’s part of being. Personally, I need to know stuff. Writing something gets me to learn more stuff. But then, if you talk about extremes, researching can be more of a distraction than an inspiration. You need an internal compass that lets you know you are going too far in one direction. If you spend ten years researching something, but don’t actually write anything, then then you have a problem if you are writer, I think. But if you only ever want to write one book that’s steeped in research, then maybe that’s okay. I’m a bit of a bird, I nibble here and peck over there and so I have to change what I’m doing, writing, reading, researching, crafting. My daughter thinks I have ADHD because I seem not to stick at one thing. Stuff you research or observe filters through in your brain and so it’s always there fermenting etc. I’m just not the years of research type of person -but I do have obsessive tendencies.

Have you ever researched something that made you abandon a story idea?

Not quite abandon. But I may have had to stop writing a story to see if something could be done. Then when I was satisfied it could, I went back to writing. Lucky these days it doesn’t take long to get the answers to some quick questions…the date something was invented for example. I have always found research inspired my work and made it more complete. The good thing about having something not work, is that you start looking for alternative and that can be even better than your first idea.

What kind of research do you need to do for stuff that doesn’t exist? (Like dragons!)

Lizards! Reading about them, observing them. Then also imagining what it would be like to live with them and also what their environmental function would be. I like using my imagination so that’s kind of liberating from having to research. However, I have to say the imagination is fuelled by everything, observation and research.

Thanks Donna!


Donna is an Australian writer of fantasy, science fiction, horror, paranormal romance and romance. As well as over 20 short stories published in various genres, she had a small press publishing house, been an editor, slush reader and science fiction convention runner. She works for the Australian Government undertaking audits of other government departments and their programs. She lives in South Canberra with her partner Matthew Farrer (also a writer) . Since moving to the new house, which overlooks the Brindabella Mountains, both Donna and Matthew are amazed at how the mountains change with the light, the clouds and the weather.

In addition to Dragonwine, Donna has another series going: the Love and Space Pirates series, a young adult/new adult space adventure/romance. The sequel to Rayessa and the Space Pirates, Rae and Essa’s Space Adventures was out in May 2015. Another book is in planning.

Shatterwing is currently FREE in e-book for a short time. As part of spreading the word about Shatterwing, Donna is doing a blog tour and offering a give away of a hard copy of Shatterwing. Winners will be drawn from people who comment during Donna’s blog tour. So please leave a comment to be in it to win!

Down the research rabbit hole

This year I have made a concerted effort to concentrate on Novel Project #4. It’s not the 4th novel I’ve started writing (lost count on that score), or the 4th one I will actually complete a finished draft of. It’s the 4th one I’ve put a serious and concerted effort into creating. Basically, a project gets a number when I feel like it’s a going concern. Otherwise it’s just fiddling around.

Novel Project #4, however, is the first one that I have spent a serious amount of time planning, and some very serious time researching. By natural inclination, I’m an inveterate pantser, but (for me, anyway) an approach based solely on flying by the seat of my pants is not conducive to getting novels written in a professional time frame.

For the last two months I have had a heavy focus on doing the actual writing part. This has been by turns intense, exhausting, exhilarating and frustrating, and it’s used up most of my word ju ju (yes, that is a Thing), which is why I’ve been so slack about blogging. I’ve done bits and pieces of writing throughout the year, but, seriously, I have spent most of this year doing planning and research.

Project #4 uses a paranormal historical setting, which means, as I mentioned, the research burden for this story has been quite high. Naturally I’m using one of my favourite periods of history, so I’ve enjoyed this immensely. But this means there is an ever-present lurking danger of being sucked down into a Research Rabbit Hole.

Rabbit hole

These Research Rabbit Holes can be fabulously inspirational, or horribly time wasting. They can take you in directions that are wildly irrelevant to your story, or can help you add layers of authenticity and meaning to your work. So I thought I’d share some of my favourite journeys down these Research Rabbit Holes with you. I’ve also asked some other writers about their experiences falling into these diabolical black holes of eternal fascination, and I’ll begin putting up a series of guest posts on these tomorrow.

Recently, I was doing a little bit of research on a peripheral character. Primarily, I was just checking to see whether I could find out who was the Rector of St Paul’s Church Covent Garden in London in 1765, or whether I had to make someone up. I found him, one Reverend James Tattersall, and managed to glean a tiny bit of biographical information about him. But nothing substantial; nothing to suggest the kind of man he was. Then I discovered this snippet: a 1768 register of baptisms by Reverend Tattersall in St Paul’s Covent Garden.


Right there on the 25th of March 1768, is an entry that indicates the Reverend Tattersall owned an 11 year old boy as a slave.

Rabbit Hole 1: What kind of person owns a slave? Was it an issue of status for Tattersall and his wife? Was it an act of charity? Was it unusual for people in his position to own slaves? Were they nice to him? Where they horrible?Why baptise him then? Why wasn’t he already baptised?

Rabbit Hole 2: Who was the poor kid? He was only 11! Where was his family? Were they alive? Were they even in the same country as he was by this time? Where was he from? Did he speak English? What was his life like after joining the Tattersall household? How long did he stay there? Did he learn a trade? Did he marry? Did he ever live as a free man?

Rabbit Hole 3: Interestingly, this was around about the time the conversation about the ethics of slave-ownership got started in the UK. In 1765 the grandfather of abolition in the UK, Granville Sharp, met Jonathan Strong, an escaped slave (for “escaped” read: beaten so badly by his master he was abandoned in the street as useless) and, with his brother, a doctor, helped him get the treatment he needed to recover. In 1767, Sharp provided further legal assistance to Strong, when Strong’s former master attempted to kidnap Strong and sell him to another slave-owner.

I could go on.

This, though, is a perfect example of just how far down the rabbit hole you can fall. And it’s also a perfect example of how, just from peeking through one tiny keyhole you can discover a wealth of material to help you build the world of your story.

Research: the perils of doing it whilst tired

I’ve been concentrating a lot lately on Novel Project #4, which is set in London in the 1760s. There’s loads of reserach material to forge through, and I have to admit it is, at times, distracting.

Today I’ve been focusing on familiarising myself with 18th Century London – trying to work out what shops existed and where, what were the nice areas to live in and what were the not-so-nice, that sort of thing. Owing to this period holding an enduring fascination with readers and writers, there is a wealth of information available, which is fantastic.

You just have to make sure you’re reading it properly.

For example, the following paragraph, on a site describing the residents of Buckingham St since its establishment in the late 17th Century, gave me something of a start:

The “Lady Kilmurray” shown in the ratebooks of 1680–1 must have been an undertenant of Dearham’s. She was probably the daughter of Sir William Drury of Besthorpe, Norfolk, and the widow of Charles Needham, 4th Viscount Kilmorey, who had died in prison in 1660 for the second time.

On re-reading it, I worked out I’d missed a line, which rendered the paragraph somewhat more conventional:

The “Lady Kilmurray” shown in the ratebooks of 1680–1 must have been an undertenant of Dearham’s. She was probably the daughter of Sir William Drury of Beesthorpe, Norfolk, and the widow of Charles Needham, 4th Viscount Kilmorey, who had died in prison in 1660. Her second husband, Sir John Shaw, baronet, died in March, 1679–80, so that she was a widow for the second time.

Bridget, Viscountess Kilmorey, whose first husband had sounded so very interesting.

Bridget, Viscountess Kilmorey

And here’s her second husband, Sir John Shaw.
Sir John Shaw, Baronet

Research: fencing

Tonight I’m doing some research on fencing schools in London in the 18th century. So have some awesome pictures of 18th century fencing.

smallsword 1

smallsword 2


Being a very visual person, I do a lot of searching for useful images. So I was very puzzled when my last lot of Google image searching on fencing schools produced an abundance of images like this:

school fencingSigh. We live and learn to refine our search terms.



Some shiny needles I found in the haystack of internet research

I’ve spent quite a lot of time doing research, lately. I’ve been working on one of my novel projects, still in its very early stages, which is based in 18th century London. This is an era I’m reasonably comfortable with, but – damn – there is still a whole lot of research to be done. I’ve spent the last couple of days in 2nd hand bookshops, and now I’ve got an interesting haul, including one book on the Bedlam Asylum, which I’m dying to get into. But – of course – I kicked off my search for information to build my world on the good ol’ internet.

There’s nothing wrong with starting with Google or Wikipedia. They are great for finding useful threads of info to follow along. (And rabbit holes to disappear down for hours…) They rarely tell you the whole story, though, and you need to be wary about taking what they say for granted. But still, they’re a great place to start for pointing you in the right direction so you can work out what you need to find out more about.

In my travels through the internet, I’ve found a couple of sites that I thought were worthy of a mention here, in case anyone else is looking for similar information.

Firstly, this one:

London 1868

This is a fantastic FREE site that provides access to “high quality scans of rare and beautiful antique maps and views”. The site focuses on 18th and 19th century maps of London and the British Isles, and 19th century Australia, but there are maps from the 16th and 17th centuries available as well. When I say fantastic, it is really, really fantastic. The resolution on the scans is incredible. I can’t tell you how useful I’ve found it. The website is run on a not-for-profit basis and is really worth a visit.

Secondly, if you’re investigating London in any period, it is worth paying a visit to the conservation areas page of

Each of the conservation areas in London (there’s 26) has its own character summary, which gives you a pocket history of the area going right back to Roman times. It describes how the use and character of each of these little patches of London has changed over time and identifies key significant features. These documents are fairly recent (I’m writing this in December 2014) and make for fascinating reading.

Finally, here’s a really useful post from over at Jane Austen in Vermont, on travel in Regency England. I say travel, because that’s what the title of the post says it’s about, but it’s full of useful stuff, like a county map of England (where exactly is Derbyshire in relation to Hertfordshire), how fast different modes of travel were (Mr Darcy vs the stagecoach) and a really good economic overview of Regency England.