How Research Really Works

My new novel, The Book of Spies, is contemporary espionage. But it also has a critical historical element about the lost library of Ivan the Terrible, which I first read about 20 years ago in a Los Angeles Times story. At the time, I was intrigued by this remarkable library, allegedly the heart of the Byzantine Empire’s imperial collection, but I could see no way to use it in a spy novel.

Finally, a few years ago I had an idea for a book in which I could use the library. I was excited. I began serious research. There is no name for the library, so I Googled “Ivan the Terrible,” “lost library,” “lost books,” “hidden library”—you get the idea—and waded through thousands of mentions, most of them irrelevant. Still, there were perhaps 20 pieces I printed out, read and filed. I needed to understand the environment in which the library had come about in the Byzantine Empire, how—and if—it had ended up in Moscow, what it had looked like, where it had been located and why it had vanished at Ivan’s death. More Googling. I bought books on the subjects of Ivan the Terrible, burned books, lost libraries and the art of collecting books. I investigated the calligraphy, inks, paints and bookbinding of illuminated manuscripts through the ages. I clipped articles from newspapers and magazines. As you probably know, one question leads to another, and then to a third, and then to a 40th. 

Are you getting tired? I wasn’t. The secret to research is to be fascinated by your subject, and I was truly fascinated. And if you, the writer, are fascinated, chances are great you’ll be able to pass that compelling feeling on to your reader—who’ll be grateful, remember and want to read your future books.  

I’ve always looked upon research as an opportunity to satisfy my curiosity. But the other side of the coin is one must not be so caught up in it that one never gets the book written. What happens to me is I finally feel immersed—and overwhelmed. That’s when I began writing The Book of Spies, never particularly certain what I would need. But because I had kept my files orderly and my research books stacked neatly on the floor around my desk, I was able to work well. Yes, I still had to stop now and then to do more bits of research, but nothing on the scale as before. I’ve finished the novel, and it will be published in April by St. Martin’s.

Want more advice on how to write your novel and get it published? Consider:
How to Write & Sell Your First Novel

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