Alyssa Alexander – The Research Abyss

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Alyssa Alexander here, talking about one of my favorite parts of writing: Research.

Research is both a joy and a bane of writing. A joy, because I love it and a bane because, well, I love it. That means I get lost in it very easily. And quickly. It also means I enjoy falling down the rabbit hole and discovering facts I didn’t know I even wanted to know.

Dry stone wall from edge of Nobleston Wood - - 1009827
Dry stone wall from edge of Nobleston Wood, UK Author: Lairich Rig, Wikimedia Commons, Creative Commons
In my first book, THE SMUGGLER WORE SILK, I have brief scene in which the hero walks over his fields, then sits down and leans against a stone wall. The wall is on his property, one of those stone fences separating green fields we so often associate with the English countryside. The problem was, I knew nothing about those stone fences. What were they made of? How were they constructed? And were they really everywhere in England, as I thought?

So much research went into just a few lines of text. I spent hours reading about stone fences, discovering that one such wall is called a dry stone fence. It’s made without mortar, so the stones must be set in place based upon shape and size. Almost like a jigsaw puzzle. This type of building goes back centuries, even millennia. Skilled workers choose the size and shape of each stone to fit together—and if the wrong choice is made, the wall must be dismantled until the error is removed. Smaller stones can be set among the larger, and the top can be covered with larger “capstones.” This method can be used for more than fences, as various cultures have created bridges and other buildings with this method.

Specific to England, I discovered that different types of construction are used in different areas. Materials and design vary based upon local availability. Also, there is a movement to repair and replace such walls damaged or worn by time.

Below is part of the scene that started the research (and I don’t even want to talk about how much time I spent researching when certain flowers bloomed in England!). The hero, Julian, is on the hunt for a traitor—and he believes it is the smuggler Grace Hannah:

“I’m going to walk from here,” Julian called to the coachman, pounding a fist lightly on the ceiling of the carriage. The brilliant sky—so much larger here than in London—had sent out fluffy white clouds to tempt and tease him into the fields.

“Are you sure, milord? It’s nearly two miles to Thistledown,” the coachman called back.

“Yes.” Julian jumped from the carriage and waved the vehicle away before turning to the vista that rolled out before him. Field melded with field, creating a patchwork of green and gold bordered by dry stone fences or hedgerows.

If his memory was correct, some of the land before him belonged to other landowners in the area, but he was certain the farther fields were part of his own estate. He wondered where his own borders were. He had never wanted to know before. He didn’t want to know now, either, particularly. He would be returning to London as soon as the traitor was flushed out.

He stepped from the dirt lane and onto the springy turf. Breathing deep, he took in the tangy scent of grass and damp earth. He tramped through a field, then another, listening only to the drone of bees and bleating of sheep. Much of the terrain had changed in the past quarter century. Flashes of memory accompanied particular views, but they were so brief he only retained impressions. Then he recognized a large oak, its branches spreading over a stone fence swathed in blooming pink clematis and dark green moss.

He’d sat in the dappled sunlight on this fence as a child. Nostalgia rose in him, a bittersweet pang that burned his throat and caught him by surprise. He settled beneath the oak, leaning against the rough stones. The ground was dry but soft, the earth warm from the summer heat. Around him, flowers rioted over the wall, their sweet scent filling the air.

Fingering the delicate blossoms, Julian contemplated his strategy. He would pursue Miss Hannah. It would be no hardship to further that acquaintance. A light flirtation, a hint of courtship. Perhaps something more carnal, though he’d never been one to take flirtation too far in his work. To use a woman’s body, to use his own that way—even for the good of the country—would make him no better than his father.

The sound of hooves thudding against earth interrupted his solitude. Julian turned to see the oncoming rider. His lips curved when he realized it was the subject of his thoughts, fast approaching on her magnificent stallion.

“Why, Miss Hannah,” he murmured to himself as he watched the pair race over the ground. “Whatever are you doing riding astride?”

Not only was she riding astride, she was galloping across the field as though all the demons of hell chased her.




He went looking for a traitor. He found a wife.

After he is betrayed by one of his own, British spy Julian Travers, Earl of Langford, refuses to retire without a fight, vowing to find the traitor. But when the trail leads to his childhood home, Julian is forced to return to a place he swore he’d never see again, and meet a woman who may be his quarry—in more ways than one.

Though she may appear a poor young woman dependent on charity, Grace Hannah’s private life is far more interesting. By night, she finds friendship and freedom as a member of a smuggling ring. But when the handsome Julian arrives, she finds her façade slipping, and she is soon compromised, as well as intrigued.

As she and Julian continue the hunt, Grace finds herself falling in love with the man behind the spy. Yet Julian’s past holds a dark secret. And when he must make a choice between love and espionage, that secret may tear them apart.