It’s All in the Details

My 'office' in Paris, with the first fruits of my research

My ‘office’ in Paris, with the first fruits of my research. I based myself there for six months, for easier access to European archives and locales.

A surprising number of readers—meaning more than one—have expressed an interest in how I go about organizing the materials I collect while researching my books. This perplexes me, because frankly I would rather watch 24 hours of Norwegian “slow TV,” than read about how writers find and manage information, and if you want to see an example of slow Norwegian TV please go to You Tube and tune in to the train ride from Bergen to Oslo, and take special note of the tunnel scenes. However, since the question appears to be a pressing one among those otherwise well-balanced souls who enjoy my books, I will now reveal the key elements of the process, at great risk of also revealing how compulsive and tedious my workday life can be.

In the course of conducting research for a book I accumulate tens of thousands of pages of documents, many of them utterly useless but fun to stack in large piles that help maintain the illusion that I do more in my office than sit around and play with the various Nunzillas and other desk toys that line my window sill. You might think, in this age when everything is digitized, that I would have done away with paper files long ago, but anyone visiting my office will see that I reside in a catacomb walled with the remains of dead trees. This causes me significant guilt which I assuage by not cutting down the trees in the front yard of my Seattle house, even though they currently block what would otherwise be a killer view of the North Cascades.


Here’s my m.o.: I parachute into an archive, along with my trusty digital camera. Only masochists still use photocopy machines. Cameras are easier and do less damage to old books and letters. I don’t read all the way through each document I come across—only enough to gauge that it might be useful down the line. Then I photograph it, and move on to the next. By the end of the day I will have shot hundreds of photographs, which, once I return home, I will then download to my computer. This is far more cost-effective than holing up in, say, the National Archives of the UK, in London, for months at a time, reading every word of every document, while spending pots of money on hotels, meals and martinis.

Next I print all these photographs, after first using various photo-enhancing techniques to brighten and sharpen otherwise hard-to-read text. The process is benumbing and is best done in short sessions spaced between bouts of reading or writing, or orchestrating elaborate battles among my desk toys.

For my book, Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, I made numerous trips to the UK archives. The first week resulted in a couple of reams worth of documents, which I broke into less immense piles of 200 or so pages, each bound with a large binder clip (and may I just say that if there is a spare Nobel waiting to be awarded, it should be awarded posthumously to the inventor of the binder clip, Louis Baltzley, who invented the clip in 1910, patent number 1,139,627, for his writer-father to help him organize his manuscripts. In my opinion, fasteners do not get the attention from the Nobel Committee that they deserve).

I then marked each pile with a code, UKArch-I for the first, UKArch-II for the second, and so on, and then lodged these on my shelves in a location reserved just for them. I try to keep the coding as simple and memorable as possible because god forbid I should have a crucial stack of documents coded in such an obscure manner that I have no idea what the code means and therefore no idea where in my office that particular pile of paper resides. My favorite code was Liver, for the University of Liverpool, which holds the early archives of the Cunard Steamship Co. I could have used U of L, or Liverpool, but I liked the simplicity of Liver and frankly I am a fan of liver, especially as done by the French, in the classic dish foie de veau, medium rare, with a shallot reduction. It should also be noted that Liverpool harbor’s most prominent landmark is the Royal Liver Building, built in the 19th century by the Royal Liver Assurance Co., and watched over by two gigantic copper birds atop its two towers, the Liver Birds, each 18 feet tall.

After printing and arranging all the materials I collected on that first trip to the UK archives, I was able at last to sit down in my favorite armchair and start reading, with pen and yellow highlighter at hand, to see what I had managed to capture. (Incidentally, my preferred pen is the classic Bic Cristal, here correctly if badly spelled, a cheap and utterly reliable writing utensil; my preferred highlighter is a Sharpie. And as long as I’m on the subject, my go-to pencil is the Ticonderoga No. 2 HB, the best all-purpose pencil ever made.)

This phase is compelling, because you just never know when you will turn a page and find some wonderful bit of lost history staring you in the face. It also means, however, that you end up reading a lot of material that is utterly useless. I rarely throw anything out, however. I am too indecisive. I place such documents in a pile named “little use.”

While reading, I highlight only the best bits. These pages get a small tab of Scotch tape (the “invisible” kind, not the glossy old-fashioned kind, which reminds me too much of the indignities of grade school). I then number these tabs in sequential order, and append this number to my code. Thus the 36th item in my UKArch-I stack becomes UKArch-I, 36, where anyone unlucky enough in the distant future to go through my notes will find pages from the 1915 book of Deceased Seamen, once published annually by the British government, which reveal the wide variety of jobs done by the ordinary crew members who were killed when the Lusitania sank.



The 1915 book of ‘Deceased Seamen,’ which has a separate section for the dead crew of the Lusitania.

I also jot little notes in the margins to indicate my perception of each item’s value. For example, I may write, “Great!,” or “Funny,” or “Sad,” which are self explanatory. These are important, because when the time comes to write my book, two or three years down the road, when everything I read starts to repeat itself and becomes familiar, the emotional and intellectual power of a particular item is likely to have receded. It is important to be reminded of how it once made me feel.

I may also note in the margin the word “Scene,” or “Dialogue,” or  “RUN.” Anything marked “Scene” has a cinematic quality that could impart something rich and visual to the narrative, for example, the Christmas celebration aboard U-20, the submarine that eventually sank the Lusitania. Any document that contains actual dialogue, such as court testimony or a published interview or something recounted in a diary or letter, is of particular value, because historical dialogue is hard to come by, and can be very useful for bringing a scene alive and increasing the pace of the narrative.

The last margin note, RUN, is not a command to evacuate the premises, though all writers at one point or another have been tempted to flee their offices at a high rate of speed; rather, it indicates that the associated account has enough energy, action and descriptive weight to carry the story forward in a robust manner, possibly for several pages. One such RUN appears in the first document in my sixth stack from the National Archives of the UK (coded UKArch-VI, 1), in a page from a once-secret ledger that shows the exact positions reported by U-20 during its first full day at sea. Material like this is gold, because it can be used in many different ways, such as to foreshadow future events or add texture to a passage. I decided to present some of these position reports as a list, in a small, half-page chapter entitled “Cadence,” which appears in the hardcover edition on p. 131, just after the chapter in which the Lusitania enters the open sea. Inherent in that juxtaposition was a sense of threat. Also, I am a sucker for miniature chapters (and horses, for that matter), especially when they contain lists or, better yet, menus, as in the case of my book, The Devil in the White City. I call these chapterlets. A chapterlet dropped now and then into a narrative can be very effective at ramping up pace and tension. It can also make me feel productive, because I can go downstairs and tell my wife, hey, I just wrote one whole chapter.


A key UKArch document, in which the Admiralty first contrives its case against Capt. William Thomas Turner, with comments from Adm. Jacky Fisher (red) and Winston Churchill (green).

As I dig through my mountains of documents, what I especially hope to find are obscure nuggets of detail that reveal something compelling about the way lives were lived in the past, and that seem likely to ignite a reader’s imagination. I was delighted, for example, to learn that several junior crewmen whiled away the hours before the Lusitania’s last departure from New York by electrocuting rats in a cargo hold, a detail I culled from material provided by the BBC Written Archives Center in Reading, England. Cleverly, I coded these documents BBC-1, 2, etc. One of my favorite little discoveries was that one Lusitania passenger, young Dwight Harris of New York, had the forethought to go to the Wanamaker’s department store in New York on the day before the ship’s departure to buy a custom lifebelt. I found this detail in a long and enthusiastic letter he wrote after the disaster, which resides now in the archives of the New York Historical Society, a lovely old building on Central Park West in Manhattan, that is home as well to an excellent Italian restaurant, Caffè Storico, Italian for historic cafe, which for a time made a killer dish of prosciutto panzotti with gooseberries, robiola crema, and baby arugula.

The little stories, unfortunately, are also the stories that can be most readily lost amid the thousands of other details that accumulate over several years of research. I am here to tell you there is little that is as likely to cause table-slapping frustration as knowing about something like the custom lifebelt and not being able to find it again when the writing begins or when the time comes to begin fact-checking and assembling my source notes. This is where the most important part of the process comes in: The master chronology.

I first got the idea to index all my research materials in chronological order from a homicide detective, back when I was a reporter for the Bucks County Courier Times in Levittown, Pa., which by the way was an excellent paper for someone new to the business. The detective told me that for each homicide investigation, he and colleagues prepared a “murder book,” that is, a binder in which every new investigative detail was entered and where all events associated with the homicide were listed in precise chronological order. By the time I finished Dead Wake, the length of my master chronology was 165 single-spaced pages. I grouped the earliest material by year, starting with 1903, but as the action advanced, my time increments shrank to month, day, hour, and, as the submarine and the ship converged, minute.

Compiling such a chronology is tedious in the extreme—and yes I can hear you muttering, “well, not as tedious as reading this essay, of that I can assure you”—but the resulting tool is very powerful. Not only do I end up with a more-or-less complete index of the best things from my files, but, because chronological order is the single-most effective structure for story-telling, I also end up with a de facto outline. Key moments in the narrative reveal themselves wherever lots of details clump together around a particular date or time. The chronology also invariably reveals odd little moments where events in far-flung places occur at the same time. For example, one very busy node in my chronology was April 30, 1915. On that particular Friday:

—U-20 left Germany and began sending wireless messages reporting its position;

—the boys on the Lusitania began killing rats;

—young Dwight Harris bought his lifebelt;

—a reporter for the Daily Mirror in London cabled his office to say that Cunard was assuring passengers that the Lusitania would be protected by the Royal Navy;

—the Lusitania’s captain, William Thomas Turner, left the ship to give a deposition as an expert witness in a lawsuit involving the Titanic, which had sunk three years earlier.

The confluence of such moments suggested an architecture of suspense, with opportunities to cut from one thread of the narrative to another and to deposit micro-cliffhangers here and there.

There is another benefit to constructing a chronology: The act of doing so lodges the details of the story more securely in my memory. Thanks to the multi-level processing powers of the human brain, some part of my mind will be soldiering ahead even while I’m asleep, piecing together the narrative in ways that I might not otherwise have anticipated. Which is a good thing. Because by the time I finish listing everything in my master chronology, I am ready to throw myself off the Space Needle.

When the writing begins, however, I am so very glad to have been through the whole exercise. I know where everything is and how it all fits together, and I don’t have to spend hours looking for that Wanamaker’s lifebelt or those charred rats. Now the writing is cake. Well, not cake. It’s never cake. Now I can at least concentrate on the writing itself, without the unsettling feeling that some juicy detail is hiding in my files, lost forever, like the time during my childhood when I was at the beach and my expensive orthodontic retainer popped out of my mouth into a receding wave, just barely visible as it slid pink and crablike into the deep, never to be seen again.


Another important element of the research process.

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Erik Larson is the author of six previous national bestsellers—The Splendid and the Vile, Dead Wake, In the Garden of Beasts, Thunderstruck, The Devil in the White City, and Isaac’s Storm— which have collectively sold more than twelve million copies. His books have been published in nearly forty countries.

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