Research: Going Deep for Details

garum factory



The First Round of Research Leaves Gaps


​Even though 80% of research doesn’t make it into your story, sometimes in the middle of writing a scene you know you don’t have the exact detail you want. Then, it’s back to scouring for infomation. I was getting ready to write a dinner scene near the beginning of the novel Felix Ravenna: A Mosaic when I found that I didn’t know the seating arrangement for the small dinner party.
Even though at the time of the beginning of the 6th Century C.E. most people sat on chairs or benches, high level events for rulers and the pope still held to the old Roman dining tradition of the triclium. I needed to know where each character was placed in the room so lears, salacious glances, and downright glares would be obvious to the main character, Argolicus.
Not only did I need to know exactly how people were placed, but I needed to know the etiquette for how people were seated around the table. I never did find an answer that would translate to Ostrogothic Ravenna, but I had an understanding of how people ranked in Theoderic’s court system, so I was able to get all the characters placed in the room.
At the same time, working on the short story The Peach Widow the ubiquitous fish sauce garum plays a role not only at the table but in the plot of the story. I researched how the sauce was made then. Here’s a factory from the time. Imagine fish guts fermenting in the sun and you’ll get an idea of how this place must have smelled and why the garum factories were always outside of town. The best sauce was made from mackerel offal.

If you’d like to approximate how the sauce tastes, here’s a quick way to reproduce the sauce. It is an acquired taste.
1 bottle of Thai fish sauce (approx. 24 oz.)
1 liter of white grape juice
In a large saucepan simmer the grape juice until it is reduced to a least half. Cool and store. When you are ready to make your garum mix the reduced grape juice with the fish sauce in proportion: 1/3 grape juice to 2/3 fish sauce. This will even out the saltiness of the anchove based fish sauce to the approximate sweetness of garum made from fresh makerel. Try it on vegetables, salads, and grains and legumes like rice or lentils.

garum factory in Spain

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