Finding the Details that Fill a World

I. Love. Research.

I mean, if you’ve read From Unseen Fire, you could probably guess that. As much as I’m a writer, I’m also a historian. It was my second major in undergrad, and my Master’s degree certainly relies heavily upon it as well. I live with my head as much in the past as the present, and while it’s not always the Roman past, for the past seven years, it certainly has been a lot of the time. It’s why I’m so delighted that many readers have called the book well-researched and immersive. The ones that put stars in my eyes are the ones that say the details were lush and real enough that they could imagine themselves being for. That’s what I was going for in re-creating an alt-Roman world!

I started taking Latin in the 7th grade, so my research for the Aven Cycle really stretches that far back. When I began working on From Unseen Fire back in 2011, much of what I did was revisit what I’d already studied in middle school through college, both the secondary sources and the primary writers. (Revisiting Ovid and Catullus is always a joy). And then, I went deeper.

Because what I needed, see, was more of the social history, not just who fought which battles when, which is unfortunately still a lot of what classical history covers. But I found some wonderful resources that told me more about how the Romans had really lived. Books, podcasts, documentaries, I absorbed it all — and if you’re interested in what I was devouring, I’ve got a solid list up on my website.

Sometimes, of course, the research became incredibly specific. I swear I spend more time making sure that one-word descriptors are accurate and conceptually available to the characters than anything else.

A sampling of things I remember having to look up while writing From Unseen Fire:

  • Are there lobsters in the Mediterranean, and if so, did the Romans eat them? (Yes, and yes, though they’re different from what we in North America think of as lobsters, and they weren’t considered either a delicacy or a staple).
  • Are there cranberries in Italy? (No, so I couldn’t describe a gown as being that color. Settled on currant, native to the Levant and thus certainly conceptually available)
  • Does the word “outlet” predate electricity? (Yes, it was originally related to water currents, and thus is conceivably conceptually available).
  • Where, exactly, was the Temple of Janus and what might it have looked like? (We have a best estimate on both, but no one really knows because it didn’t survive).
  • What would the Romans have called this one specific tributary of the Tagus River? (This one took more time, I think, than anything else, and I never did find a definite answer, but the Henarus seemed close enough, so I rolled with that).

I can tell you what the Romans ate for lunch when they stopped for fast food (yes, it was a thing), what jobs were available to slaves and freedmen, and how long it would take you to travel from Rome to Egypt in good weather. I’ve got a full listing of the religious holidays celebrated during the Republic, and I know which praenomina indicate a family origin in Umbria instead of Campania.

Not all of that makes it into the book, of course. An early draft of From Unseen Fire had a ten-page digression into the electoral procedure of the Tribal Assembly because I find that fascinating. But, let’s face it,that is not the best possible choice for pacing a fantasy novel in the 21st century. Just because I was a child who happily read the encyclopedia for fun doesn’t mean that’s the right way to write a book for other people to enjoy.

What’s curious, then, is when readers opine, “Oh, I wish she’d focused more on this aspect, what a missed opportunity”. But if I spent time on every aspect of Roman history and culture and life, there’d be no room for the story! That’s the balance I have the challenge of striking. I want to create a world that feels fully-realized, without spending pages on extended explications. Dropping a single-word reference to currant communicates something about the flavor of the world; describing the people that Latona and Sempronius pass in the street, even in rough sketches, gives a sense of the broader world. At least, that’s what I’m aiming for.

And for those readers who want the encyclopedic digressions — well, that’s why I have a Patreon. 😉


Explore the world of Aven in From Unseen Fire, available in hardcover, ebook, and audio! Go behind-the-scenes with research, WIP updates, tie-in microfiction, and much more on Cass’s Patreon.

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Cass Morris lives and works in central Virginia and the Outer Banks of North Carolina. She completed her Master of Letters at Mary Baldwin University in 2010, and she earned her undergraduate degree, a BA in English with a minor in history, from the College of William and Mary in 2007. She reads voraciously, wears corsets voluntarily, and will beat you at MarioKart.

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