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Favorite Research Tools for Writers

Today, I took a trip from Londonium to Constantinopolis. I travelled by road, river and sea. It took me 50 days and cost 1505 denarii. And I did it all without leaving my desk thanks to ORBIS, The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World.

Yes, I fell down a rabbit hole while doing research for my work-in-progress and found this really cool tool that simulates travel in the ancient world. It’s the perfect calculator for history buffs and historical writers. 

From the creators of ORBIS: “Our model seeks to improve our understanding of how a large-scale system such as the Roman Empire worked, of the effort it took to succeed in the struggle to connect and control tens of millions of people across hundreds and thousands of miles of land and sea.”

After playing with the interface I discovered that it was quite nuanced. For instance, changing the time of year for travel, changes the route. Note the thicker line in the map below. That’s the winter route from Londonium to Constantinople, though the creators point out that “The model’s tolerance of unfavorable conditions is consistent with historical evidence that shows that travel was on occasion undertaken even in highly adverse circumstances: ships braved rough seas and armies crossed the Alps in the depths of winter.”

As I sit and ponder the great sagging middle of my current novel, ORBIS might just nudge some creative blocks into place. For instance, how would my main character feel about taking a side trip to Carthage? And what would it be like to cross the seemingly endless Mare Nostrum (Mediterranean Sea)? While this map doesn’t give me information about each stop on my trip, it is certainly a great tool in my writer’s kit for creating believable plots in historical or even fantasy fiction.

Apart from the practical applications for research, Orbis is just plain fun. The interface also includes background information about its creation and applications.

I love interactive research tools like these. Check out ORBIS when you have some daydreaming time. 


What are your favorite online research gems for writers? Post links below to share with others.

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