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Alma Katsu: How To Research Your (Historical) Novel

I came to novel writing after decades working as an intelligence analyst. This means I had tons of experience as a researcher because that’s basically what intelligence analysis is: a research project where, at the end, you brief the President  of the United States on your findings.

No pressure.

As an intelligence analyst, you’re given a topic and it’s your job to learn everything about it in order to understand what the key issues are and the factors driving those issues. You also must figure out what information you need to truly understand the issue, which may not be the information that comes easily to hand. You also must figure out the best way to organize that information, which might amount to thousands of factoids, so that you can not only make sense of it but instantly lay your hands on the citation for any single piece. And lastly, you learn to be quick because you can be called on at any time to brief Congress or the National Security Council.

As it turns out, these are all skills that come in extremely handy when you’re writing a novel, particularly a historical one.

The Fervor (Putnam), which came out on April 26, is my third novel of historical horror. The first was The Hunger, a reimagining of the story of the Donner Party, and the second was The Deep, which brought this treatment to the sinking of the Titanic. When I was on tour promoting The Hunger, I’d have at least one person come up to me at every event to ask how research a historical work, which led me to reflect on my research process for novels. I’ve distilled it into some tips that I hope you find useful.

The number one problem, I heard from writers, is research paralysis. Getting sucked down the rabbit hole and being unable to stop researching and start writing. I’m here to tell you research paralysis is real. The truth of the matter is not that you need more information but that you’re hesitant to start writing. It’s easier to continue doing what you can see—read one more book or spend another afternoon surfing the internet—than to start on more amorphous things like characterization.

It’s a sign of insecurity, and the answer for that insecurity is to build rigor into your research process.

The number one tip is to define the scope of your research. If you don’t know what your book is about, everything seems important. So: define your book as much as possible before you start researching. Can you limit it to a single historical event—say, one battle instead of all of WWII? You’re writing a novel, not non-fiction: don’t forget that your book is about the characters, a specific plot or story, dialogue, voice, theme. Once you know what it is you’re truly writing about, it becomes easier to rule out huge swaths of background.

Your research should serve the story, not the other way around.

A lot of research these days is online, which raises the question of evaluating your sources. Can you trust what you read on the internet? Yes, but only with some vetting. Even experienced researchers can have difficulty determining the reliability of sources. Stanford professor Sam Wineburg found that it’s best to think like a fact-checker when evaluating online sources. Think laterally, in other words, checking a fact against a number of different websites/sources, rather than deciding whether to trust a fact based on how reputable the source website looks.

For The Hunger, I had to rely on the work of homegrown genealogists or from diaries, so the question was how to decide whether a piece of information was reputable. In intelligence, we develop confidence scores: it’s a way of putting all information on a level playing field. You can work up your own system, but generally it’s done in three tiers:

  • Probably – very confident; you’re 75-90 percent sure that the information is correct
  • Possibly—confident, 50 – 75 percent
  • Unlikely—less than 50 percent

Lastly, consider taking your notes in the most efficient way possible. For me, that means spreadsheets and no (or very little) paper. This might be a tip for writers of a certain age; the younger generation is already comfortable with spreadsheets. Paper and journals get romanticized, but spreadsheets are efficient. You can arrange information in a way that visually makes sense. If you need to move a piece of information, you can do it easily and don’t need to recopy a lot of work. You can hyperlink citations or other material. You can make as many timelines as needed, and they’re great for keeping track of characters’ vitals. And they’re searchable! What’s not to love.

Now, put your fear of research aside and go work on your novel.

Alma Katsu is the award-winning author of seven novels. Her latest is The Fervor, a reimagining of the Japanese internment that Booklist called “a stunning triumph” (starred) and Library Journal called “a must read for all, not just genre fans” (starred). Red Widow, her first espionage novel, is a nominee for the Thriller Writers Award for best novel, was a NYT Editors Choice, and is in pre-production for a TV series.

Alma Katsu: Website

The Fervor: Indiebound | Bookshop | B&N | Publisher Site