If you’re a history buff, you might know Brad Meltzer from the two History channel shows he’s hosted: “Decoded” (an investigation of unsolved mysteries and conspiracy theories) and “Lost History” (a search for missing artifacts). If you read suspense, perhaps you know him for his legal thrillers (Meltzer has a law degree and was once an intern on Capitol Hill), or for his Culper Ring Series of secrets and symbols in Washington, D.C. (the latest, The President’s Shadow, is due out this June). If you’re a parent, it may be the Ordinary People Change the World picture book series that comes to mind (he released four in 2014, including No. 1 bestseller I Am Amelia Earhart, and his latest, I Am Jackie Robinson, hit shelves in January), or his inspirational collections Heroes for My Son and Heroes for My Daughter. Or perhaps you’re a fan of his comics, inspiring TED Talks, the old WB teen drama “Jack & Bobby” he co-created, or even just his popular Twitter feed.
But no matter what you know Brad Meltzer from, if you’ve seen any of his work, you know Brad Meltzer. It’s his passion that’s the calling card of everything he writes, and he pours himself into his work with geek-level enthusiasm, an unassuming likability and good humor.
In the March/April 2015 Writer’s Digest, Meltzer talked with WD about jumping fences to greener pastures, keeping yourself hungry and never letting anyone tell you no. Here, in these online exclusive outtakes, find out more about how he adds authentic details to his stories, and what can be learned from his favorite character of all time.
You’re known for your meticulous, on-scene research. When you go on those sorts of fact-finding missions, how do you soak in that experience—what’s your method? I’m assuming if access is limited you don’t want to have to email someone and say, “Wait, was that door on the left, or on the right?”
I don’t mind [following up] for the tiny, tiny details. In fact, today I emailed someone at the National Archives and said, “I forget, does your hallway have that marble wainscoting on it or not?” And it’s such a dumb little detail, but to me it’s the most vital little detail, because you don’t want to get that one wrong.
I think I’m very good at the full-on experience of how it feels there. I just have a really good memory for what I see. I will jot down things like carpet color and paint color and things that strike me, but it’s hard to describe [what I’m really looking for]. It’s like the Supreme Court definition of pornography: I know it when I see it. And when I’m researching, I just know it when I see it. Most of the time I don’t even know what I’m looking for.
If I knew what I was looking for, I’d know before I got there. But so many times, you go for a world that interests you, and then you find something else that makes you go, Oh, that’s interesting. I think the better use of research is getting to know people and talking to people where they develop a trust and tell you their greatest story. If you go in there and you’re the only one and you know what you want to write and you just want to write it, then why bother them? But you’re there and taking their time because they have something amazing to share with you, and as a writer, all you’re doing is trying to look through someone else’s eyes. So stop and take a look. You can ask them later about how the door opens and closes.
I remember for [my first novel], we were on the final final edits, and I called [the Supreme Court administration] and said, “Key question,” and they were like, “Yes!” and I was like, “On Page 1 of my very first published novel: Does the front door of the Supreme Court push open or pull out?” So yes, I’ll go do that, but that to me is not the use of [on-site research] time. Especially today with Google and things like that you can get half the things you want. People just post everything about their workplace these days.
I love the interactive format of your “Lost History” show, the idea of inviting the audience in. Do you ever foresee being able to do something like that with a book?
It’s funny, in a strange way I already do. If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook, sometimes I’ll just say, “OK, people, what’s the best kiss you ever had taste like?” To me that’s just a fascinating way to kind of ask your friends—because the community that is there, I know this group, and they know my sense of humor and they’ll be sending me stuff all day.
I don’t think you can ever focus group a book, I don’t believe in that. There’s this famous story, I think it was in The New York Times years ago, and it said they tried to focus group art. And they asked people what kind of art they liked, and people said they liked beautiful sunsets, and they put a sunset in, and they said they liked famous people, so they put George Washington in, and they said they liked animals, so they put him on a horse, and by the focus group that should be the greatest piece of art ever, and of course it’s just like Elvis on velvet. So you can’t focus group art, you have to tell your own story. But I think the closest we come now is just when you’re looking for that detail.
You hinted that your next book will be a stand-alone.
Yeah, but I do want to do another series—I got the series bug! I’ve realized …
My favorite character in all of fiction is Batman. To me Batman is the best character because he’s thousands upon thousands of pages have been spent by writers and artists honing him into this finely tuned character that you know exactly what he is supposed to do on every page. If someone said, “Batman lifted up his mask and had a big smile on his face and was so happy,” you’d say, “That’s not Batman.” You’d know he would never do that. And it took me a long time to realize that the only reason that happens—this is so obvious, but I’m just not that smart—is because people took that time to keep filing away. He’s not that person in the first story, but the pieces are there. It’s just a matter of someone taking the time [through the series] and figuring them all out in the same direction. And when you do I just think the reward is so great, and you can get into that character in a way that you can’t with a character that you’ve only met for a year. It’s like comparing the first year of dating someone with year 10. There’s great plusses and great minuses but the depth is so much deeper if you take your time.