Thursday, May 22, 2014

How to Write a Novel: Research

Guest blogger D.J. Niko is the pseudonym for Daphne Nikolopoulos, a journalist, author, editor, and self-proclaimed modern nomad who has spent the better part of two decades traveling the world. As a former travel writer and zealous adventurer, she has visited remote spots on six continents, many of which have inspired her novels, including the award-winning The Tenth Saint and its sequel, The Riddle of Solomon. Her next two novels will be released in 2015. Daphne was born and raised in Athens, Greece, and now resides in Florida with her family.  

The Rest is History
By D.J. Niko

Researching historical fiction and thrillers with historical themes is a little like going down the rabbit hole: you have to enter another world and come out, sweating and panting, on the other side before you can actually get it.
When you research and write about the ancient world, that’s especially true. I deal with time periods as far back as the sixteenth century BCE, when information wasn’t exactly plentiful and the recording of facts was sketchy at best. Think about it: historical documentation as we know it wasn’t a thing back then. The ancient Egyptians carved their conquests onto temple walls, the Israelites had an oral history that got passed down over thousands of years, the Greeks (before the days of Herodotus) painted pottery and inscribed ostraca, and on it goes. A few blanks to fill in? You can say that again!
A lot of people ask me, why the ancient world? Why not pick something more accessible, like, say, World War II or 1960s London? What can I say? Doing things the hard way is one of my more charming qualities. Ahem.
So how do I get my material? For starters, I hang out with a lot of archaeologists. Archaeology is one of the most important tools in understanding antiquity, because it provides hard proof of how people lived and died, when cities flourished and were destroyed, worship practices, and so on. The scientists working in the field are a wealth of information and, in most cases, fairly outspoken (and opinionated!) about their research. They are more than happy to give a novelist an earful.
In researching my first book, The Tenth Saint, I traveled to Ethiopia and spent time with historians at Aksum and monks at Lalibela, trying to understand the mindset of the people during the early centuries of the Common Era, when Christianity first infiltrated the Abyssinian Empire. I went down into the tombs of Aksum, walked through the catacombs beneath the rock churches of Lalibela, attended traditional ceremonies whose practices had not changed since ancient times, hiked to cave churches in the hinterlands (and I mean hinterlands), and studied the stele inscriptions of the nation’s early kings. Of course, I also sampled all the Ethiopian food, beer, coffee, and tej (honey wine) I could get my hands on. Hey, it’s the least I could do for my readers.
For the next book in the series, The Riddle of Solomon, I added another layer of inquiry to the standard archaeological research. The story is set largely in Israel and involves an antagonist who believes he is the Jewish messiah for whom the world has waited. This guy is ruthless in amassing the relics that will prove his legitimacy; chief among them are the plans for building the third temple in Jerusalem, meaning the original temple plans by King Solomon.
So, to research messianism, Judaic oral tradition, and the spiritual significance of King Solomon’s story, I consulted a couple of rabbis. They were very gracious to embrace a Greek Orthodox girl and, over several meetings, walk her through the fine points of Judaism. It was illuminating, to say the least, and I think the book is better for it.
For me, there is no substitute for experiencing a place firsthand and interviewing the experts in person. But life does not always allow for this. My other means of research include university library archives, books written by ancient writers (for my current project, I am reading Plutarch, Herodotus, and Pausanias), museums, and, of course, the Internet. And this happens throughout the writing process, not just in the front end.
Because I’m all about recycling and reusing, I use this information in other ways. In recent years, I’ve been repackaging the research and lecturing about it to private groups and continuing education students at academic institutions. It’s just another vehicle to get my name out there, sell books, and share some of this fascinating knowledge in a more direct way.
As I state in my Twitter profile, I have become an antiquities geek thanks to all this research (I’m really fun at cocktail parties), but if the work seems more authentic because of it, I’ll take the ridicule.
I will leave you with this fun quote by Homer: “I did not lie! I just created fiction with my mouth!”


  1. James O. Born5/22/2014 6:05 AM


    Thank you so much for the great blog.


  2. from Jacqueline: A really interesting post! Thank you! I spend a lot of time on historical research, though mine is just a little more accessible, I think. I believe the key to good research is to know how to use it - and I've always thought it should be like an iceberg, with only 7% of the research visible in the story - the rest informs every word you write. And you're so right about using that research in other ways - I've been asked to speak at academic conferences and with historical associations, which I really enjoy. Thank you for this!

    1. I agree 100% about the 7%, Jacqueline! No one likes an info dump. It's definitely challenging to weave the research in in subtle ways, but it comes more naturally if you really understand your subject. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Wow! I feel like a total slacker, research-wise. My books are set in today's Los Angeles, which I live. I agree that it's wonderful to be able to visit a place in person before placing fingers on keyboards. Thanks for regaling us, Daphne.

  4. I greatly admire what it takes to write your books. When I research, if I can't find the answer within 30 seconds on Google, I move on to something else. But then, I'm old and lazy.

  5. Nothing like a little tej to slide you through writer's block. I can't wait to read one of your books, D.J.