A former student wrote to me this morning to ask, via turning her historical thesis into a novella (Godspeed!), HOW the hell do you organize the mountains and mountains and mountains of research involved?
Thanks to the sheer amount of information out there, a writer can feel as though she’s standing in the Alps, with no idea how to find her way through.
When I was writing THOSE WHO SAVE US, I think I might have had it somewhat easier in that books were still my primary research source, as opposed to the Internet, which can lead one down such endless paths (and who knows what’s true?). I also incorporated emotional details from interviewing Jewish Holocaust survivors for the Spielberg Foundation–and for visceral detail watched every movie I could find about the era, and listened to German music and took German classes and baked everything that appears in the novel! so I would know as much as possible what it felt like to be my characters from the inside out. I did stop short of sleeping with an SS officer, however.
The sum total of this was 10 years’ worth of research; for my second book, I did the same.
My organizing principle is like Hemingway’s tip of the iceberg theory about writing: I know 90% more than what made it onto the page. And knowing that invisible 90% is what helped give me the confidence in my characters and their situations. I believe that confidence resonates with readers; you’re not showing it off to them, but they feel it by osmosis.
How did I choose WHICH 10% to incorporate? Whatever the novel demanded! I might have known, for instance, that (forgive the grueling nastiness of the image) the rat problem at Buchenwald was so bad because of the dead that the SS had to call in a special team of exterminators from Berlin. But there wasn’t anyplace in the book where I could plug in that particular information, so it’s something I held in reserve (and used in a different story about the same time).
So: read everything you can. Watch and listen to everything you can. Process it in the way that’s best for you; for me, it was to take copious notes, read and reread them, highlight what I felt was most important. Then use what your story demands! It will show you the way through.