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Tips for Complex Historical Research

The Rotherhithe Picture Research Library

Please welcome back Alma Katsu [2] to Writer Unboxed today! Alma is the award-winning author of THE HUNGER, a reimagining of the story of the Donner Party and one that Stephen King has called “Deeply, deeply disturbing.”
Additionally, THE HUNGER was on NPR’s list of 100 favorite horror stories, was named one of the best books of 2018 by Barnes & Noble and Amazon, and was just named a Bram Stoker Award finalist [3]! It released in paperback two days ago, on March 5th.

Her debut novel, THE TAKER, was one of Booklist’s Top Ten Debut Novels of 2011.

Learn more about Alma on her website [2] and by following her on Twitter [4].

Tips for Complex Historical Research

Is America afraid of doing research?

That’s the question I had to ask after touring for release of The Hunger, a reimagining of the story of the Donner Party with a horror twist. The question I was asked the most at events, hands down, was how did I manage the research for the book?

Why this horrified fascination for research? Were we all scarred writing research papers in high school?

I admit that the amount of research required for The Hunger was pretty daunting, but that’s because it wasn’t merely set in a historic period, it was about a specific and well-known historical event. It had to follow the actual route and timeline, and it also had to cover a huge cast of characters (there were roughly one hundred people in the wagon party, including children). I joke that there are, easily, ten thousand facts tucked throughout the book and that might be a conservative estimate.

Luckily, I was prepared: I’ve been a professional researcher for over 30 years. I’ve found it’s well-suited for historical fiction, maybe even more so than historians. The difference between historians and researchers is that researchers are trained to sift through information surrounding a subject quickly and efficiently in order to make logical sense of it and reduce it to its essential elements, while retaining integrity of all the facts.

Based on questions I’ve been asked, the two main problem areas for most writers seem to be: (1) How do you know when to stop gathering information (“help me, I can’t stop researching”) and (2) How do you organize and manage your notes? I firmly believe you don’t have to read everything that was ever written on your subject before you can start writing. However, you do need to have a sense of what you need to know and the discipline to trust your judgment.

A few tips to bear in mind:

1. Limit yourself to two primary reference works. There are dozens of books, non-fiction and fiction, about the Donner Party. It would be easy to become bogged down (if not paralyzed) trying to consult them all, but that would result in a lot of redundancy. Do a quick look into which are the best references for your purposes (skim reviews, see which ones other researchers recommend), are readily available, and then ignore the siren song of those spurned volumes. You can always do spot research on specific problems as you write.

2. Read through those two books and take copious notes, but the main thing I’ve found that adds magic to a book, at this stage, is to look out for quirky details on which you can build a character or sub-plot. This may not seem like a mind-blowing tip, and of course what makes for great material is subjective, but it surprises me how many opportunities other writers seem to have passed up. Almost all the really bizarre moments in The Hunger are based on things that actually happened and, I think, give the novel the feeling of genuineness.One example: early in The Hunger, we hear of Ash Hollow, an abandoned hut that is used by settlers on the Oregon Trail to leave letters for east-bound travelers to carry back to civilization. This actually happened in real life, almost inconceivable to us today. As soon as I read it, I knew I wanted to use it in the book, and it ended up giving me an opportunity to introduce something unexpected and eerie by marrying something supernatural to this weird but true fact.

3. Use estimative probability when evaluating online sources. Reputable sources are easy to identify; it’s the ones that look home-grown that can give you trouble. While researching The Hunger, I’d find the occasional tantalizing fact, something I couldn’t find anywhere else, buried in an amateur historian/genealogist’s blog. Do you use the fact or not? In my day job, we assign an estimate of probability: is it probable, possible, or unlikely to be true? Probable, if everything else is in keeping with the established record; unlikely if little else tracks; and possible for all points in between. Work up your own metrics for those three values and then apply them whenever the question arises.

4. Don’t keep notes on paper or index cards. I realize this is going to going to be controversial, but I believe you should keep all your notes electronically. That way, you can easily search on them and move stuff around if you find some great tidbit that needs to be squeezed between existing notes. No more post-it notes or loose pages stuffed into notebooks, or losing ideas you wanted to work into the story.

Excel is my preference for note taking: You can keep separate sheets in one workbook for characters (saving multiple aspects of the character, such as hair and eye color, pertinent background, etc., in the columns), background notes, and as many timelines as you need to keep track of. It’s better suited to juggling a complex assortment of facts than notebooks, which tend to force you to think linearly.

Excel can also make it easier to keep track of revisions. I create a worksheet each time the manuscript goes through a major revision. There were multiple substantial revisions for The Hunger, with lots of action cut or replaced, and I used a spreadsheet to keep track, per chapter, of main plot points, POV, date, and location.

Though far from exhaustive, I hope these few tips inspire you to roll up your sleeves and dive into that research chore you’ve been putting off.

If you have a favorite research tip, please add it in the comments and share your knowledge and experience.