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Episode 3: How NOT to Start Book Research

*Transcripts are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and may contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print.

Hey! Welcome to another episode of Now That's a Great Story Season 2: The Process. In this episode, episode 3, Sonya and I break down all the things that you should not be doing when you start your book research. We made a lot of mistakes early on and this episode details some of them in and talks about the way that we sort of course corrected for the second book that I'm working on. We also break down like what it actually means to be a creative partnership which is something that we very much have so give this episode a listen, rate
and review it. As always if you want to connect with me hit me up at to stay in touch with me. Hope you enjoy the episode!

Hey, welcome to another episode of season 2 of Now That’s a Great Story where this season we're breaking down how to write a book. Every single step along the way how to write a book. I'm joined by my co-host by popular demand Sonya.
What started out was just me thinking. I'll have someone to talk a little bit has turned by popular demand, Sonya, into you kind of like taking over the show.
How do you feel?

It's popular demand. I have to give the people what they want right? That's what we try to do.

All right. So today it's going to be all about like how to not research your book how the mistakes that I've made in terms of researching the book and I thought that like, this is something so new that the both of us could talk about pretty well
because especially with my first book The Saboteur we didn't go about it or rather I didn't go about it….this is going to be one of those episodes where I end up looking like an idiot, I feel, so let's just sort of start at the beginning.
All right with that process. So I get the book deal first book was signed to harpercollins.

Yay. We're excited. And then the first the way it works
for nonfiction books is you get like you get the you get the advanced in portions.
So the first portion of that is just supposed to go to your research.
It's normally divided into like three. Four different parts
for nonfiction books and we and you get that first chunk of money.
And the assumption is okay go forth go do your research. I went
and I just bought all a ton of books that were that were related to World War
2 and specifically to the French Resistance. Yes, and a lot of books and Sonia
what was the mistake that I made in purchasing so many of those books?
Well, what we found later on which was really interesting which we should have thought about in advance. But whenever you report a story that kind of dictates where your research goes and the resources that you need. So what we did in the beginning was, you know, we just got so much stuff and a lot of it.

I wouldn't say a lot of it but there were books that you know,
we got that didn't weren't really helpful and ones that I never even read.
It's like to your earlier point. I was doing stuff where I was like,
I need to cover this whole broad swath. But once you get into one book, you realize oh, this is the Insight that I need and then you can go to the back and look at okay, what are the other books along similar lines that / sort of provide further depth into this. It's a depth game. Not a breath game.

Yes, and I remember in particular when you were researching the fighting techniques. Do you remember that?

Oh, yeah. So one book, so just tell do you want me to tell them real quick what that is? Okay. Yeah, so the fighting techniques there were these there were these things that were known as the silent the way to like have this silent killing which is just sounds as sort of if you're an Allied is awesome.

And if you're just sort of a pacifist as barbarous or as barbaric
as it actually was but silent killing techniques were basically the ways in which the allies trained these resistance fighters in how to kill Germans without making any noise and without only using any weapons available to them outside of their own body outside of their own sort of creativity
and Ingenuity about how they could use their own body to kill people quickly and efficiently, but anyway go on with what the fighting techniques were
or rather what we do the thing you were going to say.

Yes, because I don't know the techniques what I was going to say though,
is that you I remember you got one book about these techniques
and then you ended up buying four or five more books we had so many books it was like a rabbit hole. And that was the mistake that we made. I mean that was the biggest mistake.
We had these mounds of books and papers and when you would travel you would you know, you would do even more research, and it just was like this endless amount of paper.

Yeah, and it was just so to sort of follow up on the on the depth
but not breath game even with those fighting books. I read the first one and they were These two guys who'd been cops in Shanghai and then worked for the British government. I just thought oh my God, these guys are
so cool. And they were and they ended up serving the role in the book.
But then what I did was I bought I did that I made the mistake of doing the breath game from there and I went and bought like everything that I could possibly figure out that was around that topic.

When what I should have been doing instead was saying,
okay. I Now understand this particular aspect from the fighting
from like the techniques themselves are there other Specs of the techniques that I will end up using that will be beneficial to me.

And I think what's important to mention here is that the technique that you use; the technique that we're using now on this book is very much akin to how your brain works. That's how you research a story. That's how you particular
how I do it I think is a little bit different but how you do it is very much you kind of pick apart an ideaand you just kind of move from one thing to the next
so I think you know what you're doing even right now as you research this book may not be for everyone.

But I think it's really important that when someone's writing a book when you're writing a story you really have to focus on you know, what's the best way for you to gather information?

Yes, what we did was just kind of tried to amass as much as possible and that really that doesn't work with your style at all because now on this book what you're working on is, you know books don't come every day and they don't come and giant boxes. They come as you need to uncover that information.

Yes, exactly. And I want to get to that in just a minute, but I want to follow up on something else first because I think it's kind of important for me and I don't know like I want to sort of direct this at people who want to be first-time authors
or perhaps or even researching their book right now. When I was a journalist and Sonya knows this, but when I was writing a ton of magazine features,
I would do the breath stuff because that was beneficial in small amounts.
Right? Like I needed to quickly understand an entire terrain sometimes
because I was one of those general assignment magazine feature
writers where you have to know something and know it fairly fast.
However, that ended up not serving me all that. Well when we got to The Saboteur like I remember you weren't with me, but I took that trip to London to research at the national archives in Kew Gardens.

And by the way, like it's a beautiful archive, but even there like that was a mistake that I made now in hindsight that I can see because I was just trying to amass everything I could on Special Operations executive the group
for which will bear with which he trained and did some some work and I get to those archives and they are just massive right?

There's just tons and tons and tons and tons of material
and so I'm just sort of like generally picking out a little bit of all of it.
But none of that is really all that helpful and I remember coming back Sonya and you were, like, well, how was it? And I was like, well, I think I have this
and I think I have that. It wasn't like it was a complete bust but it was an international trip, right, which by the way because I have this chunk of money to
spend I'm spending like this is my money. This is how I'm using it. So I need to be careful with how I spend it and in hindsight, I'm not so sure that I spent it all that well because I didn't know exactly what it was that I needed.

I was still doing the breath thing instead of like focusing exclusively on Okay,
what are the things that I think I can pick out of this? Whereas subsequently like about a year, year and a half later when I was doing research in Paris for the book. I was doing some of the research there but then I was lucky enough to have a couple of translators and journalists who were when I was back in the states sort of like doing work alongside me and you know, I paid them for all of this
and all the rest, but they would go to the archives and I would say okay,
I think what you need is going to be found. In this specific subsection of the archive and within this general like folder and then you can look within that and just copy and sort of like send to me everything that we have and that turned out to be far more efficient and far better because it was actually the information that I needed.
Well, my that point is that I think you understood more about where the story was going.

Yeah, I mean that was a difficult.

I mean the two books are different
as far as scope and understanding your understanding of the Civil Rights Movement just because it's part of you know, national discourse is so much more fuller than your understanding of the French.

Really? Yeah. But you know, I think you know, of course hindsight is 20/20 I think but what would you say that we could like if we were to try to pass on some
information to people who want to write a nonfiction book
and I think that we're going to have to tailor like this episode to writing nonfiction books, right? But if they wanted to write a nonfiction book How would you how would you tell them like when they don't know what it is that they need how to go about it?

I think it's I'll go first I think. I think what you should probably do is you should just start with a book that you know will be helpful write, a book or two and then read that take as many notes on it as you can and then look in the back and figure out, Okay, what are the other books that you think are sort of complimentary in theme to this one?

Yes. I think that's that's a hundred percent accurate,
especially and again, I'm talking specific to how you research
and how your mind works, which I don't think is too dissimilar to you know,
a lot of journalists who write long-form narratives fiction or nonfiction,
but learning about the topic is key for you. It's key for me. I just thought of it a little bit differently, but definitely I think starting with a book just like you said
that's going to give you that kind of understanding because that's what you're searching for your searching for a broader understanding. This topic which will which did will spark ideas which is exactly what you're doing right now with this book you're reading a book or two books and then it's kind of moving you to a different book and it's I mean, I think that's a much more sustainable progression.
Yeah, so I think let’s put it to this book because we you and I have learned a lot about this. All right. So the this this upcoming one is about broadly speaking the Birmingham campaign and I'm doing a lot like to sort of focus on how just those
10 to 12 weeks in that spring of 1963. I think there's a great narrative
there so its first off it's a far more super-focused book than the last one.
The last one was like I was trying to follow the whole of Robert’s life.
This one is like I've got three or four Central characters and I want to just show their reveal their character. Within the prism and the confines of these 10 weeks and have those 10 weeks themselves speak for the Civil Rights Movement.
All right, so we are this time first off.

We're just like I'm going to find one book that I like that I know will be helpful and broadly speaking. I knew that of course, there's like pillars of research in
this and one of them is Taylor Branch whose one of your favorite authors write
and what branch did with the Civil Rights Movement was phenomenal. And so I focused on just like Pillar of Fire and what he was saying there about the Birmingham campaign as the way to understand.

Alright, what are the other books? Should read and then I began to read those books too. And now like, you know that research began probably four or five months ago, right and now, you know, we're still in a sort of self-imposed quarantine because we don't have the vaccine yet. But when we do it's going to set us up because you know, you will be coming with me Sonya down to Birmingham and when we Go down there and we'll probably record a couple of podcast episodes from down there. But when we go down there we're going to probably have a much better sense of, here's the stuff that we need to find because we have so much other material from the books.

But what are the primary documents now that we need to find like the actual police reports? How can they inform what it is that we need? And I think you know one thing that changed significantly it's just focus like the Taylor
Branch trilogy is like the Bible of the civil rights movement
and instead of reading all three of those which are massive books
and which aren't helpful to what I'm doing. No, I think
for me that was kind of a turning point where I realized this is
going to be much different than the first book and then we sat there and tried to translate it for weeks. And I know that, you know, if we'd done this book first, we probably would have gone out and gotten the trilogy read the trilogy taken notes about all these different things and all the like Sonya.

I mean, there's nothing and we're not disparaging Branch or but for this particular book. It’s not what I mean, we would have tried very hard to immerse ourselves in Mr. Branch’s world instead of the world that we need to create.

Yes. Yeah. Yes. And so I felt like which by the way maybe something that's beneficial to say to I mean, I know this is about research but when I started out I always thought that you could only write books about which nothing has been said before and like Robert kind of fit within that because his memoir had never been translated into English.

The French Resistance was broadly speaking the topic that did not gain a lot of there weren't a lot of books in English about the French Resistance.
So we were like, okay, this is great, but If that doesn't mean that like even if even if a topic is really well covered. That doesn't mean that if you have a cool entry point or it or a cool way to frame the book that you can't go in and then do your own book.

I mean the Civil Rights the Civil Rights can and might be the largest and most explored period in American history, like maybe outside the maybe outside a civil war but maybe even greater than the Civil War. I don't know but I mean I've read a lot of civil rights books. And so if you but when I first told you about,
you know this book I at least got excited because I'm like look, I read all these other books and I'm not seeing something.

And I think what is so captivating about this particular book is just the nuance of the story and the deep dive that you're doing into these particular characters and in this moment of history, which is, you know, just so interesting and then you know your take on it is going to be different than how you process the information to conclusions that you draw because of your experience of…your own personal experience and what that lends to the work is something that you know, I'm very excited about. I think it can be an incredible telling. The story is going to be different than someone else's with a different experience. So, you know, I think that you know, of course that lends itself to the outcome probably more than I think you going into the project that maybe you had thought about
until we had the good deep discussion about what this could mean and where this could go.

Yeah. I think you're right. Yeah, so there's something that Walter Isaacson said that I really liked and Walter Isaacson is was of course like a legendary journalist
forever and then he wrote I mean he wrote the Benjamin Franklin biography wrote The Steve Jobs biography and when he was doing an interview,
he said something that I really liked about how he approached his historical research and how he uses sort of journalistic background to inform that historical research.

He said that when I go into a book like the Franklin book right where everybody's dead. This, I'm thinking like a journalist. I'm thinking. All right. Well, what can I get from Franklin's writing? So those will be basically like the primary interviews that I would have done with him quote unquote and then he's thinking about all right, where can I what is this sort of sphere of influence around Franklin that can help me understand who he is,
right. So then he sees he's searching out other Memoirs or diaries from other family members. He's thinking very much like… He's thinking like if I'm writing what is basically like an extended profile of somebody,
how can I talk to the people around him who both love him
and hate him to help understand who he was help understand his
character help understand his motivations?

I think that that is a brilliant way to go about researching the book.
It's super depth. It's not super breath right because even with something as exhaustive as the that Franklin biography. He's focused on just a guy now.
If you want to go the exhaustive route like Branch like Robert Caro you can but like that's a man. That is something that I just I can't even wrap my head around her. No, it's not suited for me and and and maybe it not it won't be suited for you either listener.

I'm not so sure but I feel like that this the thing that we have learned
and I think that something that you know subsequent episodes of the podcast we're going to really we dig into is like super specific aspects of that depth
and not breath because depth like it's sort of like you can explore that endlessly
and it can be far more fruitful than just saying, Well, I need to cover a broad swath of everything.

I just think you have to allow yourself permission to discover make discoveries on your own as opposed to reading a book that's going to give you all the answers. Instead of starting in one place and saying okay, this can lead me something somewhere else and that's okay and I feel like the first book we were really searching for answers so quickly that we just went out
and got everything that we could and some of them gave us answer some of us didn't but… and some of them I didn't even read we did not even read it.

You know, I'm gonna be honest. I didn't read many if any Well,
I mean you're not being asked to know it's true, but we have a beautiful bookcase filled with books. Some of them literally don't even have the wrappings the the sort of plastic wrappings off of them because I just never got to them.

All right, so that's probably a good place to stop and you know start to think about maybe even like how we can dig into this. Next episode, you know Sonia I just this is fantastic. Look at you. I mean, I wish everybody could see you right now. She is she's sitting there. She's Regal. She knows that basically this podcast is quickly becoming hers and then I'll have to step aside.


All right the music for Now That’s a Great Story comes from
Mr. Jeffrey Willett

Jeffrey Willett!!!

Some production help comes from him as well. Thank you, sir.
Yeah, I will see you next week.
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