Tosca Lee On Research

Today, I welcome to TKZ my friend and fellow ITW member, New York Times bestselling author, Tosca Lee. Because of the historical nature of so much of Tosca’s writing, I asked her to share her thoughts on research. Enjoy!
Joe Moore


I’m asked often how I research my historical novels. I’ve steadfastly avoided writing about this topic until now I think because it’s such a personal process—one dictated by how a IMG_2385rd2person sorts, digests, and stores information. None of us will do it the same. That said, having had to pack the equivalent of a dissertation’s worth of research into six months on occasions before, I have picked up a few tricks.

1) Start pedestrian. Do what everyone else does: Google. Wikipedia. YouTube. See what’s available on Amazon. Read and watch widely.

2) Acquire key references for your library. These are the staple works and experts that books, articles and documentaries about your topic refer to time and again. For the first century, it’s the historian Josephus. For period warfare, Carl Von Clausewitz. Find your staple information.

3) Find specialty outlets. This is where I divert to the History Channel. National Geographic. The Discovery Channel. Coursera. Two of my power tools: The Great Courses and the (in my opinion) less-utilized and under-appreciated iTunes U. These last two, in particular, are rich sources of highly-organized, consumable information by leading experts and ivy-league academics. True, the Great Courses are not cheap. If scrimping, look for the course on eBay, or order only the transcript. iTunes U. is free.

4) Identify your experts—the writers of the staple books (or their commentaries), the leading academics or specialists teaching the lectures or commenting in the documentaries. These may also be area experts or locals living in your setting (travel guides, bloggers and book authors are excellent for this) or doing what they do.

5) Recruit. I never write a novel without at least a small group of experts in my pocket to either point me in the direction of information I need or to directly and expediently answer a question as I’m working. Don’t be afraid to write and introduce yourself and how you came to find them. Be direct with queries and questions, and therefore respectful of their time. Curators of specialized information are eager to help someone who shares their enthusiasm. Offer them the gift of some of your previously published work if they express willingness, and a consulting fee if you have the resources. If you find yourself relying on their help at regular intervals, be gracious with a token of appreciation. And of course remember them in your acknowledgments and with a finished copy of the project. Having made friends with several of my sources, the research has become easier; when I start a project in the purview of one of them, I ask for a starting bibliography, which cuts down on steps 1 and 2.

Of course you need a general idea what you want to accomplish when you start researching. That said, I have found it most helpful to let the research inform my outline, particularly in writing historical fiction. I find it most helpful to let the political, cultural and religious climate of a point in history inform my characters’ backstory and upbringing. In fact, I have three rules as I create historical characters in particular: their lives must adhere to or put an interesting (but plausible) twist on their historical record; their lives and actions must be in keeping with their political and cultural setting (even a visionary is only a visionary relative to setting); and ultimately, their pains, joys and actions must ring true to human nature.

My research library for my first book consisted of some fifteen items. My library for Iscariot, more than 100. There’s an inherent risk in so much information and it is this: the temptation to put every tasty morsel of obscure but fascinating information into your prose.

Don’t do it.

Despite my telling myself this advice, my first draft of Iscariot was 800 pages. Part of that is my own habit of over-writing first drafts. The other part of that was an overabundance of interesting stuff. Too much clever innuendo that required first educating the reader.

Readers are not reading fiction to be educated, but entertained (or else they would be reading the same research material as you). Take the time to read and absorb everything pertinent—not for their sake, but yours. Sort your information in a way that you can find what you need when you need it. These days, I organize information by topic in Scrivener. But having absorbed everything I’ve read, listened to, and watched, I try to push it all away when I sit down to write. I let loose, keeping maps or immediate references nearby if necessary, but adding historical details in very small doses later—and mostly to the first part of the novel, where I am buying credibility with the reader.

Save yourself the trouble of hashing through a barrage of information by cutting to the heart of your story from the get-go. Because ultimately, the storyline that will draw and keep your readers is not the product of your diligent research (that will only keep you out of hot water with the critics)… but the emotional connection with a character’s hopes, dreams, failures and fears—the things that bind us all, regardless of time and place.


Tosca Lee is the award-winning, New York Times best-selling author of Iscariot; Demon: A Memoir; Havah: The Story of Eve, and the Books of Mortals series with New York Times best-seller Ted Dekker (Forbidden, Mortal and PastedGraphic-5Sovereign). Her highly anticipated seventh novel, The Legend of Sheba, releases September 9, 2014.

Tosca received her B.A. in English and International Relations from Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts with studies at Oxford University. She is a lifelong world adventure traveler and makes her home in the Midwest. To learn more about Tosca, visit

For a limited time, download ISMENI, the eShort prequel to SHEBA for free.


13 thoughts on “Tosca Lee On Research

  1. I disagree with everything Ms. Lee says in this piece. When it comes to research, just make it up. Saves a huge amount of time.


    Actually, Tosca is a friend and one heckuva writer, and these are great tips, esp. the difference between education and entertainment. We must always do the latter first or no one will care about the former.

    Thanks for stopping by TKZ, Tosca. (Though I’m serious about times when it’s okay to make something up and make it sound real! You probably didn’t know that Judas Iscariot ran a restaurant, did you?)

  2. I love it when people talk about research. Too often I see beginner writers tell me they don’t have to do any research because HEY it’s fiction, right? But that’s not true. Every genre can have research. Even science fiction or fantasy. You can research time periods or science. In the case of magic, your character may be able to create fireballs at will, but you still have to understand what happens when a fireball hits a human being… or an animal… or a tree, or a ship, or a car, or whatever. Making it up isn’t going to grab your readers.

    Excellent post!

  3. These are really great tips…even if you are far long in your publishing experience. Research is so seductive and as you said, Tosca, the temptation is great to want readers to be as thrilled with every unearthed nugget as you are. Learning what to leave out is sometimes the hardest part.

    Did not know about iTunes U. Will definitely check it out!

  4. Tosca, welcome to TKZ! As a fellow writer of historical fiction, these research tips are great. I’ve always found experts in the field more than willing to help me with even the most obscurest of details – but the key is to keep a balance between the historical research and the story. I like to think of my research as the keys to evoking a sense of time and place but that it needs to be a sensory experience rather than an information dump:)

  5. Great post! I write thrillers, but still relevant.

    I tend to divide my research into two parts: before I write, and after the first draft or second draft.

    Before I write, I have a tendency to want to research to death, but I control myself, and research only plot-related information, and only enough not to look like a fool when I’m talking to experts (who have always been really keen to help), e.g., I can’t ask, “What is pedophilia?”(DUH), but I can ask, “Is a character with x,y, and z characteristics and behaviors likely to be a pedophile?” “Would this particular backstory have created a pedophile?” Etc. (My characters kill pedophiles.)

    What I’m saying is that I don’t expect my beloved experts to do my research for me, but they can sure keep me on the straight and narrow.

    After the first or second draft, I often have specific forensics questions that can’t be answered via the Internet, so, again, my beloved experts will review the relevant scenes for me and correct me when I’m way off base. Any mistakes that remain are my problem.

    This approach works for me, but I truly admire novelists who tackle historicals. I suspect that the research required is much more extensive than mine.

  6. Great, great, Tosca. Thank you for sharing some of your process. This is just what I was looking for. I’m still mostly fluffing around at Step 1 but have taken baby steps in terms of seeking counsel from wise others.

    And yes, one can get too involved in sharing a piece of information which a reader really will have no interest in unless it adds to the story.

    Thanks Tosca.

  7. I love historical research. So much so that recently I had a former National Archives Director come speak on it at our latest Alaska Writer’s Guild Monthly Program. Very interesting. Getting experts to look at it for you/with you has been one of the most rewarding for me, as well as going onsite for much the research for my Alaska based novels.

    It is scary, though, how easy it can be for me to get lost in the research and forget to write the book.

    That’s why I recently hired a new research assistant to dig up relevant materials and haul them back for inclusion in the stories. Well, actually Fillii and the boys hired him, I haven’t even met him yet, so I’ll let them tell you what he does for us here at Sandman Studios.

    Fillii: Thank you sir, and just so you know we’ve loved these years doing research for you ourselves, but find that some things are left to pros like the fine young…er…man…thing we’ve hired.

    Boffin:He’s a gollum!

    Gnillii: Not “THE GOLLUM”, of ring fame, just “A” Gollum.

    Boffin: Combined DNA of a Troll, a Mule, and a Shovel, and fluent in several guttural grunts.

    Berthold: His name is GRRawllyph, with a capital GRR.

    Boffin:Is that how he put it on the resumé?

    Berthold: Well no, that’s how he pronounced it, Welsh spelling I think.

    GnilliiThe resumé was actually a small sheep with a large handprint indented on its side.

    Basil: You mean, sheepskin right?

    Gnillii: No, it was a whole sheep…well, most of a whole sheep.

    Fillii:Don’t worry. We mopped up the porch and got most of the wool out of the mailman’s truck.

    Berthold:Oh, you should’a seen the look on that mailman’s face when we came out of the house to accept the package.

    Boffin: You’d think he never seen a Leprechaun before.


    Fillii: Oh! That’d be GRRawllyph now with his first assignment for your ancient China historical series.


    Basil:Where’d the sunlight go?

    opens door

    Basil:Uh … what .. is .. that?!?

    Fillii: Berthold, can you translate that skriggly gold writing on the ivory there?

    Berthold: Sure, it says …. mumble….mumble……er…Ah… here it is:
    “Here in this shiny box lies The Mighty Big And Powerful Emperor Wu Zhou, Leader and Protectorate of the Zhou Empire. He’s dead now, so we buried him with his horse and his favourite wife…and boy she was not happy.”

    Basil: Uh…he brought the whole tomb…
    You guys literally told him to dig up relevant materials and haul them back didn’t you?

    Fillii: Well, isn’t that what you asked for?


  8. It is definitely tricky balancing what readers want when you are writing historicals. Some are historical aficionados of your time period and are looking for loads of details and, well, HISTORY. Some are lighter fiction readers who don’t want to get bogged in details and just want characters/plotline they can relate to.

    I figure you can’t please everyone all the time. I agree w/your goals in writing–that you keep it as historical as possible, keep the setting realistic, etc., but you have that driving storyline that people can relate to. I’ve tried to read some historical fiction that is so laden with details, the story gets lost. You can tell the author is injecting those details, more like a teacher than an author. I love historicals that show the author has done his/her research, but doesn’t feel the need to teach me a historical lesson every other paragraph. Great post, Tosca!

  9. When I’m reading a story and something strikes me as unbelievable, I get pulled out of the story pretty quick. It’s not details like the name of a place or whether a particular article of clothing existed during an period of time. My issue is with numbers.

    I actually picked up the phone and called a cemetery not long ago because I questioned the accuracy of an author. Check it out if you like.

    I don’t think the author intended to educate with this detail, it was just a number they pulled out of a hat, but I couldn’t let that go. I’m not sure other readers would be the same way about it, but hey, I have OCD with a combination of ADD. No wonder I can’t finish my novel. 🙂

    Have a nice day y’all!


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