Making the most of a research trip

My novel-in-progress, Weaver of Words, has reached the point where I need to fill in some topographical, historical and cultural details. Luckily for me, this stage has coincided with the start of the summer holiday season so I can get out there and do the research in person. Much as I like siting at my desk, cup of coffee by my side, whizzing around the internet there are some things which are best experienced and researched in person.

For my novel, Stūra māja: In the Shadow of Fear, I walked the streets of Riga looking at the topography through the eyes of my main character. I had gained a good idea of the layout of the streets from printed maps, Google Maps and  the original television version of Henning Mankell’s Dogs of Riga  but I need to experience the places for myself. Having walked the streets, I then visited the Museum of Occupations and looked at photographs of the streets during the Communist period. I visited the KGB headquarters three times to be sure I knew the layout and experienced the building.

Whilst I cannot actually go back to 1968 and 1973 (the key dates when most of the novel is set), I can visit the chapter locations in person and visit museums and exhibitions. Earlier in the year, I paid a visit to Warsaw so I could visit a Polish block of flats from the era (it resembled a prison with narrow corridors lighted by low-output strip lighting  and metal doors to each flat), walked the streets and seeing the parks and buildings my characters would have seen and then went to the 30th of the Palace of Culture and Science  to experience it for myself. Now, I know the view my characters could have and how cold it is  up there. This is something I could not know without being there.

For my research trip to the Czech Republic and Poland I have to fit a lot in. Suddenly, seven days does not seem enough even though I used to know the locations quite well and am not seeing them for the first time. I will, however, be seeing them through different eyes. When I lived in the Czech Republic I was caught up in the experience and living though the transition from Communism to Capitalism. Now, I am looking as a writer and a historian.

I think careful planning is important when making a research trip. Think about what you want to find out, how you are going to find this information or experience, where you want to go and how much you can physically do in the time. As a result of trial and error, I have developed a series of Excel spreadsheets to keep all the information in one place.

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This image shows part of the sightseeing and research spreadsheet. I have broken the trip down into days and then into the places I need to visit. I have tried to group the locations in locations e.g. Chodov and Haje so I can visit the cemeteries and the remnants of Communist street architecture.Another day, I got to Havirov following the bus route of the two main characters. I have factored in a drink in the pub-restaurant (restaurace) they visit – that is a bit of pleasure as well as work.

I know some people think this is a bit OTT or even anal but it means I have a list of where I need to go and what I need to do. By arranging everything in my spreadsheet, I am trying to make sure I don’t miss anywhere out.

By taking the time to plan in advance, I have uncovered some exhibitions I did not know about before and which will provide useful background information. There is always so much going on in Prague that the variety of events is somewhat overwhelming and my spreadsheet is providing structure to the trip. It is something I recommend a researcher to do. After all, you have paid a lot of money to do this research so you need to make the most of it.

As well as planning the actual research, I have designed some new business cards. I am hoping that if I cannot find all the information I need some kind archivist will help me out. It’s just more professional to be able to handover a business card than to scribble your details on a post-it note. Just in case anyone is minded to Google me, I have also updated my website. I do want to look my very best.

As a footnote: I have saved quite a bit of money by booking all my travel online.


If any of my readers has advice they would like to share be assured it will be gratefully received.



How to pack for Wizz Air

Choosing to travel Wizz Air unleashes my creativity. Here I show you how to pack for a one-week trip and meet the Wizz Air baggage requirements.

Wizz Air, the Hungarian “budget” airline, has one of the tinniest free baggage allowances of any of the no-frills airline. Their free on-board allowance is one bag measuring 42 x 32 x 25 cms. This is smaller than the smallest wheelie case I have been able to locate. However, if you pay for priority seating at the time of booking you get to take on board another bag such as a small handbag, camera bag or laptop case. In addition, you can take an “airport” carrier bag with your duty free purchases, reading material such as a book and one of those little food bags from the eateries.

Having spent several days measuring up my own collection of rucksacks and those available in local shops, I have finally settled on one. It is a bog standard work or school rucksack which is marginally smaller than the size allowed. I picked it up off Amazon but they have similar ones in supermarkets, sports shops and the like. I like the colour and the three pockets on this one. The straps at the bottom will be ideal for holding my sunhat. There’s also one of those mesh side pockets which will become home to my vacuum flask.


This bag is not huge, and far smaller than a small suitcase, and so requires clever packing and serious trip planning on my behalf.

The trip is a seven day research trip to the Czech Republic and Poland. I will spend two days in Prague, then take a cross country train over to Poland, spend three days in Silesia, take the train back to Prague  for another 30 hours or so. The bag, therefore, needs to be lightweight, sturdy and easy to pack and unpack. So far, on trial packs, this bag meets the criteria.

As the trip is combining travelling, museum visits and archive research with some sightseeing the packing list includes items suitable for a city visit. In my trial pack, I have squeezed into the main compartment socks, underwear, two pairs of chinos, three light shirts, a tee shirt, a thin sweater, PJs, two exercise books, a camera, tin mug and coffee bags, some charging cables, slippers and some odds and ends such as cotton shopping bag and a bottle opener. In the outside pocket, I am carrying plug converters, a small water heater and all toiletries. All clothing has been rolled up so it will a) fit and b) come out looking reasonably wearable. All the accommodation comes equipped with irons so I can spruce things up on the way. I have gone for a blue and terracotta colour scheme to maximize usage.

I have learnt from previous trips that it is essential to keep key items in large freezer bags so they don’t get mislaid or the bag emptied to find them. I have one freezer bag for chargers and connectors, one for toiletries and one for miscellaneous items. Small clothing items are in nylon bags.


I have a nice collection of small tubs for aloe vera gel (for rashes and sunburn) and hair gel. The shampoo is made from a shampoo base with a little olive oil and sage essential oil. The blue liquid is laundry detergent. I take a bar of homemade soap to use in the shower and sink. It is stored in an Altoids tin. The toothpaste is low cost supermarket own brand. I decant where possible as small versions of toiletries are very expensive and wasteful.

I always have a stash of useful items in a plastic bag. I always take some spare freezer bags. The roll up sports bottle is both extremely useful and lightweight. I have added a clothes repair kit because accidents do happen.


I am saving space by taking a bridge camera i.e. a DSLR which has one lens to cover wide angle and zoom. My phone is a back up. I need to take notes so am packing my Samsung Galaxy Note and  a keyboard. They fit in a small shoulder bag. I am also taking a small notebook and some photo mounts to create a kind of journal/safe store for the tickets and receipts I collect on the journey. The small book contains post-it notes in case I want to make a note.


And finally, coffee. I always take a water heater, a tin mug, coffee bags and some dried milk. I will only take a quarter of the milk in a plastic bag.


That’s almost it. I have a small nylon rucksack for days out, a travel towel and some plastic cutlery for picnics in the park etc.

Everything fits comfortably in the small rucksack with some wriggle room and space for chocolate while meeting  the WizzAir requirements. I am now ready to travel.

Solo Travel

Sometimes I travel alone and sometimes with friends. It all depends on the reason for the trip. My last few trips over the past 18 months (Copenhagen, Riga, Warsaw and Budapest) have been with friends and I have enjoyed planning the trips and sharing experiences with them. Copenhagen would not have been quite so much fun on my own; Riga I know like the back of my hand and I have set a novel there, so it was good to share; Warsaw was a research trip but the two friends who came with me made it less work-orientated than it would usually be. I certainly spent a lot more time sitting around drinking coffee and having breakfast than I ever do on my own. It was pleasant but I did not do as much work as I would have liked. Now, I have to return to Warsaw to do the research I went to do in the first place, Sigh.

I went to Lublin, Poland, on my own last summer and enjoyed the freedom of going where I wanted but it would have been nice to share the experiences with someone. Even I got tired of sitting in pubs drinking beer on my own. Strangely, it was one of the few trips where I did not get talking to anyone. Maybe it was the weather or the hotel I stayed at (a business-type place).

I have just returned from a weekend in Paignton, Devon, where I got chatting to quite a few people. It made the trip a little more interesting and I learnt something about lives different to my own.

Next month, I am on a research trip to the Czech Republic and Poland – alone. It is part research and part nostalgia as I am researching my new novel and revisited old haunts from 24 years ago. I have created a schedule so that a) I don’t get bored and b) I don’t miss anything. I am looking forward to my action-packed days and mad travel schedule and hoping I will get to talk to some interesting people. That, after all, is the purpose of travel: to have new experiences and widen one’s horizons.


train ticket Ostrava to Prerov

Original train ticket April 1991