Guest Essay: ‘New Pompeii’ Author Daniel Godfrey on Research and Writing Great Fiction


NewPompeiiDaniel Godfrey is the author of New Pompeii. In this guest post, he looks at the research involved in writing a good work of alternative history and finding a balance between commitment to factual accuracy and telling a fun story.

More about New Pompeii:

Some time in the near future, energy giant NovusPart develops technology with an unexpected side-effect: it can transport objects and people from deep in the past to the present day.

For post-grad historian Nick Houghton, the controversy surrounding the programme matters less than the opportunity the company offers him. NovusPart’s executives reveal their biggest secret: they have saved most of the people from Pompeii, minutes before the volcanic eruption. Somewhere in central Asia, far from prying eyes, the company has built a replica of the city. In it are thousands of real Romans. And Nick has been chosen to study them.

But Nick soon realises that NovusPart are underestimating their captives. The Romans may be ignorant of modern technology – for now – but city boss Manius Barbatus wasn’t appointed by the emperor because he was soft. The stage is set for the ultimate clash of cultures in which time itself is a weapon…

“How Much Research is Too Much Research? Balancing Fact and Fiction in Science-Fiction”
By Daniel Godfrey

I’m fairly certain that if you spoke with any author, you’d find the proportion of their research notes that ended up in their finished novel would be fairly small. The strand of SF to which my first book belongs – alternative history – to a certain extent compounds the problem: not only does New Pompeii involve the creation of a near future society (& tech) from which to kick off the action, it quickly introduces a cast of Roman characters transported from 79AD.

Although I’ve always been interested in Ancient Rome, it will probably come as no surprise I did a lot of research whilst writing New Pompeii. However, I also knew I wasn’t writing a textbook. The aim wasn’t to regurgitate everything I’d found out about how Romans lived, worked and played onto the page. What it boils down to, is how much did the reader need to know to build up a believable setting and cast of characters through which to engage the plot?

The key word here is ‘believable’. And I think it’s here that historical fiction and science fiction have more in common than they probably realise. It’s immediately apparent, for instance, that time travel doesn’t really work (yet!) but that hasn’t stopped us enjoying many, many stories based around the premise. Each one has crafted some explanation to allow us to suspend our disbelief – whether that be a simple portal-based doorway, police box, or accelerating to 88mph. It would be relatively easy to dump massive amounts of information in these explanations about quantum theory (or whatever strand of physics is fashionable in the day) but the SF writer must only include what is necessary for the story being written.

Historical fiction, on the other hand, seeks to transport its audience through the creation of a historical setting. And yet the past, as they say, is a foreign country. Whilst historical societies can seem very familiar, they can also be very alien. Consider attitudes to religion, women, relationships, slaves, money and even death.

From a Roman viewpoint life was very precarious. Some estimates are that Roman women had to have about five or so children through their lives just to keep the population stable. At the same time, economic life was very uncertain – with massive under-employment endemic across most periods – meaning there were clear risks associated with having to support unproductive members of the family (i.e. infants). This meant it was common for children to be exposed or discarded soon after birth.

On a more light-hearted note, whilst writing New Pompeii I also became aware that a Roman method of treating fractured skulls was sometimes to cover the head with cobwebs. This bit of trivia didn’t make the cut, however, because it was so (un-unintentionally) funny that it bumped my beta-readers from the story.

The important point is that historical societies are very alien. They’re difficult for us to understand, as our points of connection are so limited. So whatever story you’re writing – whether that be a historical novel or the hardest of SF – there’s always going to be a series of choices: what does an audience need to know in order to suspend their disbelief and enjoy the story?

After all, isn’t reading meant to be fun?!