I love all books, but there’s no genre I enjoy more, and more consistently, than a historical narrative when it’s done well. When a particular piece of history is resurrected and retold in gripping detail — in the style of Erik Larson or Laura Hillenbrand — it’s a special kind of reading experience, because you get the color and urgency of fiction with the added satisfaction of expanding your knowledge, and feeling smarter for it, by learning about this little moment in history. I’ve wanted to do a book like this for years now, and when I came upon the Project Azorian story, I knew this was the one I should do. It had all the elements, especially the one that’s most important to me: It’s really, truly stranger than fiction. Here’s what I learned along the way.
Reporting history is a lot like journalism: I’m a journalist by trade, and I worried that this would be a very different experience. And it was, in some ways. But the backbone of the narrative is made up primarily of the stories of people I met and interviewed — the same way I interview subjects for my stories all the time. Admittedly, this isn’t always possible — say, if you’re writing about something that happened 100 or 200 years ago.
I guess one lesson, then, is to pick more recent history, so that some of the subjects are still alive!
That said, it’s even lonelier than journalism: Inevitably, a work about history is going to involve reading — piles of it. You need to read everything published on the subject, in periodicals, and books, and often you will have to do this at distant libraries and dusty archives. Days and days on end will be spent alone, with piles of paper. Your eyes will cross. But don’t quit early. Stay longer than you want to. You’ll never regret it later.
Read much more than you think you’ll need: I sometimes think that my best work isn’t really about how much of the reporting I used. It’s as much or more about what I didn’t use. When you start leaving things out that feel valuable, but just aren’t essential enough to warrant space, you know you have enough. No one has ever regretting having too much.
Ask about everything, and then some. That last tip reminds me of something that’s generally true of all interviews, too. Whether I’m writing a magazine story, or working on a book, I always ask for as much time as possible from a subject so that I get more material than I’ll need, but when it comes to history, when you have to reconstruct scenes that you haven’t seen, it’s extremely important to try and ask questions that elicit detail. Do you remember the weather that day? What was your boss wearing? How did that room smell?
Fact check as much as possible. I typically trust peoples’ memories, but one thing critics often say about narrative non-fiction is that the writers take license with details — they’ll add color that’s hard or impossible to verify. I typically take a source’s word for it, especially if I know that person to have a vivid memory. But there are also ways to add to the color. You can look up the weather on that day, in many cases. Or search the local papers (many of which are now archived online) for stories about things that happened in that place on that day.
The smartphone is a critical tool. You can make copies at libraries and archives, but it costs money and adds up fast. I often only needed part of a page, or maybe even just a few lines. More and more, I found myself snapping pictures with my iPhone camera. I also used it to take snapshots of interview subjects, relics from the mission they had in their homes, or places of relevance to the story, such as an office building near LAX Airport. A few times, I was in a house and saw a book or article that the owner wouldn’t let me remove. I just took pictures of every page.
Come up with a filing system that works. I am terrible at this. Learn from my mistakes. The more stuff you have, the better you’ll need to be at filing. I tried to group things into obvious subjects (like, Howard Hughes, or Global Marine) but later realized these weren’t specific enough (I needed to do, say, “Hughes break-in” or “Global Marine history”). In at least one instance, I had to go back and locate the source of a specific fact very late in the process — to make sure I hadn’t gotten it wrong — and it literally took me hours, because my filing had been so sloppy. Really, you need one for hard copies, for papers and brochures and diary entries, and one for digital, for all the clips and interview transcripts. Late in the process, a friend recommended DEVONnote—as a place to dump and organize files in all kinds of formats—and I think it would be even more useful if I’d had time to really learn it. I also used Scrivener for writing the manuscript and it’s pretty handy for organizing and linking research to the draft itself.
Find surviving family members if at all possible. Even if a character is long dead, he or she will likely have surviving family who can be of great help. In the best circumstances, they’ll have diaries or notes or photos. But even if they don’t, they might have stories, or ideas for who else to contact. I can’t tell you how many times this happened for me. Without question, the best stuff I got on John Graham, the ship’s architect, came from his daughter, Jenny, who married a Global Marine engineer. I didn’t find and speak with her until I’d been working almost two years on the book.
Befriend the people who were there first. When it comes to history, it’s a virtual certainty that others will have written about your subject before. I’m not the first person to write about Project Azorian. And one of the first things I did was to reach out to authors and journalists who’d covered the operation at the time, or in parts of their work. (That’s important, because often the story you’re basing a book on may have been just a chapter, or a part of a chapter, or a magazine feature.) In nearly every case, they were happy to help me, by pointing me to notes and sources, or stones they’d been unable to turn over. We writers are all competitive, but most of us understand we don’t own a subject, and that others will come after us. There’s no good done by being unhelpful to others. The point of history, really, is to leave the best possible written record for the future.