Susan Grossey

Rabbit-holes of research

Alice’s adventures in Wonderland start when she spots a white rabbit checking his pocket-watch, which makes her “burn with curiosity”, and so she follows him down a rabbit-hole: “The rabbit-hole went straight on like a tunnel for some way… Either [it] was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her and to wonder what was going to happen next… Down, down, down.  Would the fall never come to an end!”  It’s not hard to see why, when we’re tempted to follow links and footnotes and passing references and dropped hints and other lines of enquiry, we call it “going down that rabbit-hole”: who knows how long it will last, where it will lead, and what we will find at the end of it.  And this is where I am at the moment, as I start my research for the first book in the Gregory/Cambridge series.

Before I can even think about plotting in earnest – I have the flimsiest of story ideas – I need to set the scene.  And so far I have found three rabbit-holes that I need to explore: military history (so that I can put Gregory into the right regiment for his military background and then send him to the right battle in the Peninsular Wars to get his injury and his nightmares); university history (so that I can drop the right references to the structure of the place and its governing bodies, as well as its often fractious relationship with the surrounding town); and details about the life and duties of a constable (which I already know are far more involved and varied than I had initially imagined).

My problem is that, oh dear me, I do love a rabbit-hole.  Yesterday I spent an hour reading happily about a “town and gown riot” that took place in Cambridge – in 1854.  Yes, that’s a full three decades after the setting of my series and therefore totally and utterly irrelevant, unless I decide to make Gregory a clairvoyant – and I can guarantee that I won’t.  I have no discipline at all when it comes to research and I need to get myself under control.  My mantra for today’s research session is: yes, but is it relevant?  Of course, I don’t yet know precisely which details I will use, so I am perfectly entitled – and indeed obligated – to gather much more than I will ever use, in order to give myself the wide knowledge that I need to talk with authority about the period.  But an hour on something that happens after Gregory has died?  Get a grip, woman!


  1. Graham Thomas Avatar
    Graham Thomas

    Dear Susan

    A town and gown riot sounds far more interesting than a routine riot, so I can understand the distration (although an hour’s worth might be a trifle excessive).

    It’s intriguing to hear that there was a difficult relationship between the university and the town. Today’s inclement weather hopefully provides a perfect excuse for some more research on these points, whilst hopefully staying warm and dry inside.

    Best wishes


  2. ihatemoneylaundering Avatar

    Hello Graham
    Yes, town and gown have had a fractious relationship from the beginning. In essence, it seems that the university had too much power – able to over-ride local justice if it suited them or their members – and didn’t contribute enough to help the local poor (while managing to get themselves exempted from land tax). I have a feeling that run-ins with local hard men are going to be a regular feature of Gregory’s life!
    Best wishes from Susan

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