Erik Larson on the joys of digging through archives

"You never know what you’re going to find in the next folder."

SEAMAN: Let’s talk about research. You’ve said you want your nonfiction books to read like novels, and they do because you bring every scene and detail to such vivid life. How do you acquire all the requisite information, and how do you utilize it?

LARSON: Right. The way it starts, for me, is you read the broad stuff, the big survey histories and so forth. You kind of circle in, getting closer and closer to the nub of things by going into what I call the intimate histories—the published diaries, documents, letters—and all the while you’re looking for the right characters. Then you have an idea of who these characters might be; you come down to a half-dozen characters, one of whom could be central to the story. Then it’s time to go to the archives. The Library of Congress is stop one. The manuscript division. It’s a bad thing to plan too far and with too much detail about how much you need and where you should go. There’s no substitute for parachuting in and flailing. Inertia is a powerful force in my life. I can put off anything for a long time. Just ask my wife.

SEAMAN: There’s always something else to read.

LARSON: Absolutely. So then you go to the archives. I love it. I love going through boxes filled with files that are full of stuff. You never know what you’re going to find in the next folder. The problem with online research is you always know what’s coming. Somebody else has selected what’s online. The serendipity effect is crucial, finding things that are potentially really valuable to you. Say, an envelope with nothing in it, nothing associated with it, could be valuable because it might have so-and-so’s return address on it. Or it might confirm a contact. Little detective-like things. I just love those. In the case of In the Garden of Beasts, Martha Dodd, the central character, has seventy linear feet of documents, letters, writings. The first couple of files in the first box, if I remember correctly, were calling cards that she collected. Hundreds of calling cards. They were common currency in that period; they were very important to the ebb and flow of social life. So here they are, and I’m going through them, and here’s the calling card for Hermann Göring. I’m holding this calling card that Martha held at one time, that Göring held and gave to her. There’s this little electric charge that comes from stuff like that, and that’s the fun that keeps you going.

My favorite find for In the Garden of Beasts was two locks of Carl Sandburg’s hair I came across in one of the files. What the—?! It was very cool. I knew that Martha and he had an affair—later in the files, I found material that definitely supports that fact—but I couldn’t get my mind around her having an affair with an older guy. She’s twenty-four, and Sandburg’s fifty-something. But there are the locks of hair; it’s true. You need those little discoveries.

With The Devil in the White City, so much of the stuff I came across I found hard to believe. I’m not even talking about the serial killer part; I’m talking about the World’s Columbian Exposition and who participated in it. One thing I didn’t know about when I proposed the book was the fact that the mayor, Carter Henry Harrison, was shot and killed the night before the elaborately planned closing ceremony, which was cancelled. What the hell? So you look at these critical moments. The thing that stood out in the files in the Chicago Historical Society was the evidence tag for the gun that was used to kill Harrison. Of course, no one knows where the gun is. That’s the missing element. So it’s the tactile contact with the materials.

And, of course, you have to go to the places and get a sense of what’s there, even though there may not be much left. I didn’t know Chicago before I started writing The Devil in the White City. Suddenly, I’m here doing this research for this book, and one of the things that leapt out at me was the power of the lake in defining the city. Not just how the day looks—the light in summer, say—but the shifting moods of the lake at any one time. That became very important to know and to see. I like to think the lake is a character, a quiet character. I think it would be a different book without my having seen the lake. Subtle, intangible things matter.

When I went to Berlin for In the Garden of Beasts, I discovered the really attachable thing, which I think somehow infuses the entire book, when I was just walking around, looking for addresses. I found the location, but the Dodds’ house is no longer there. Believe it or not, it’s an empty lot with a fence around it. How strange is that? It’s prime territory; what’s going on there? But what I realized, in a miniature epiphany, was that everything was in walking distance from that spot. Walking distance to Gestapo headquarters. Walking distance to Hitler. You could walk across the park to the Reichstag. Suddenly, I realized that all the action took place around the eastern quarter of Tiergarten, the park. The location is very important to know. It played a key role in the ultimate choice of the title: “The garden of beasts” is the literal translation of “Tiergarten.” I learned, also, that it was one of the few places you could go and feel safe from surveillance, and that Ambassador Dodd used the park for conversations with diplomats. It became very important to the writing to know that all this was there. Things magically popped up. Then I could see Dodd walking out the door. You’ve got to have moments like that. If the story doesn’t come alive for you, it’s not going to come alive for your readers.

SEAMAN: What sort of notes do you take in the field and when you’re going through library and archival material? And how do you organize and work with all the information you gather?

LARSON: First of all, I don’t believe in coming and spending six months in a city in a hotel, reading everything as I go. My MO is to read far enough into a document or book to think, “This could be valuable,” and then I photocopy it. Or, today, I take a digital photograph. So I make hundreds and hundreds of copies and bring them home. Some will be worthless, but it’s still cost-effective. Then I find the highlights in those things, and I index each document, and each collection of documents, with little tabs, so I know that’s where the best quotes are. And as I’m doing this, I create a chronology, in which everything is tied to specific times and days. The result, before I start to write, is about a hundred single-spaced pages covering everything day-by-day-by-day, with little references to each of the indexes of the copied documents. So it might say “Tiergarten,” and then there would be the name of the source and a Roman numeral, and then just a couple of notes about that particular quote, enough to make me remember it. I know exactly where it is; I can go right to it.

This detailed chronology is my secret weapon. Because chronological order is the key to any story. If you simply relate a historical event in chronological order, you have done much more than most historians do. I’m appalled when I read books about things I’m interested in—the Third Reich or whatever—by how many times historians just don’t tell it in the order that it happened. By how much they jump around. It’s so weird. Chronological order is the most important thing. So I have, essentially, a default outline for my entire project. The major events will declare themselves because that’s where the most information is. So when I go through this chronology, there are obvious points where a chapter is going to be, and there are obvious places where I can see that if I end this scene there and jump here, that’s good foreshadowing.

ABOUT Erik Larson

Erik Larson is the author of six New York Times best sellers, including The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America; Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania; and his newest book, The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz.

About the Author

Donna Seaman

Donna Seaman is the adult books editor at Booklist, a member of the leadership team for the American Writers Museum, and a recipient of several awards, including a Louis Shores Award for excellence in book reviewing.

View Essays

Leave a Reply