Daniel Kraus is a New York Times bestselling author. His posthumous collaboration with legendary filmmaker George A. Romero, The Living Dead, was acclaimed by The New York Times and The Washington Post.
Kraus’s The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch was named one of Entertainment Weekly‘s Top 10 Books of the Year. With Guillermo del Toro, he co-authored The Shape of Water, based on the same idea the two created for the Oscar-winning film. Also with del Toro, Kraus co-authored Trollhunters, which was adapted into the Emmy-winning Netflix series. Kraus has won a Scribe Award, two Odyssey Awards (for both Rotters and Scowler) and has been a Library Guild selection, YALSA Best Fiction for Young Adults, Bram Stoker finalist, and more.
Kraus’s work has been translated into over 25 languages. He lives with his wife in Chicago. Visit him at danielkraus.com.
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In this month’s Dog Ears interview, I spoke with Daniel about organization, research, and outlining. Enjoy.
Max Booth III: You recently tweeted that you wrote eight novels last year. And I want to know how.
Daniel Kraus: Well, I wrote eight books, and I'm being a little loose with the term in that I think a couple of those were comic books series that will eventually be a book. But they will first exist as a series of comics.
It is weird. You start a new year and you look at what you got going on and you think, all right, I'll write a couple of books this year maybe. Then it gets to the end of the year and somehow it's some tremendous number that seemed impossible. I'm not entirely sure how it happens, but it's definitely something to do with me just getting better at it, you know? And this is despite my continual attempt to make it harder. It's very easy to just sort of do what you know how to do, right? After I wrote Rotters and Scowler at the beginning of my career, I think a lot of people would have been happy if I just continued to write books like that the rest of my career. I've probably written one more, only one more, that kind of feels like that. Bent Heavens sort of feels like those books. But largely I've gone off in various Byzantine directions trying to create new problems that I can't get comfortable with. And then I have to hurdle new problems and throw up new obstacles that will make me have to think differently. The idea now of writing two books that are similar in feel—in sequence—just feels impossible to me. It feels like death. It feels like why would I possibly want to do that? Except for financially, of course.
Max Booth III: I have read three of your books now. The third one being Bent Heavens, and the other two being Blood Sugar and The Living Dead. It's like, how is the same person writing these? It doesn't make any sense, especially when you throw Blood Sugar in the mix —which is just this fucking chaotic maniac of a book. And I love it, but it's interesting that you give yourself these challenges of never going in the same direction and just kind of feeding these different lines throughout your career. Do you think that's the reason you are able to be so productive?
Daniel Kraus: I think so. I think on one hand it's really commercially problematic. I really do think that people generally want their writers to deliver one kind of thing, and that's maybe sad, but true. And I get it. But I would have stopped writing a long time. It would have been such a grind.
Max Booth III: Have you encountered much resistance from representation?
Daniel Kraus: No, not really with representation. I think early on your agent is going to have a sense of what you are and what you aren't. And if they're not comfortable from that, you know, you have representation who will not be representation for very long. It was pretty clear early on that I was going to do a bunch of weird things and that was just the way it was going to be.
But to answer your question. Yeah. I think it is a super important key to productivity that every book is a palate cleanser from the previous book. It keeps everything feeling fresh. When I'm working on multiple projects at once—which I usually am; I'd say any given time, maybe three—them being radically different is a huge help.
If I'm gonna be writing three books and they're all for, let's say preteens and they're all realistic fiction or something like that, I could see how that would be deadening immediately. If I'm writing a book for little kids and then writing this weirdo adult thing, and then also a graphic novel, they're so different that it's like, it's just continually fresh.
Max Booth III: Do you have any tips or advice on how to focus on multiple books at a time? Is it just the fact that they are all so different? Or how do you organize them?
Daniel Kraus: Well, even though I'm working on multiple books of time, there's usually a chief project.
There usually is one, that's sort of the A project that I'm spending…if I write six days out of the week, I'm spending four of those days on this main project. So there's always that, and there's sort of a B project that for whatever reason, you know, often in my case, it's been like it's a collaboration and you're waiting for the other person to do something. Maybe it's just a project that's easier in some ways—simpler, shorter, or whatever. That's sort of the B project, which would maybe take the other two days of the week. And then you've got a weird C project that there's no hurry on whatsoever and you're just dicking around with, and I can kind of fill in little gaps.
So I still sort of believe, in practice, focusing on chiefly one book at a time and that's the way I'd prefer to do it honestly. But it became impossible after a while.
Max Booth III: How long has writing been your sole job?
Daniel Kraus: Oh, not that long. I dunno, five years, I kept a job for quite a long time.
Max Booth III: What were you doing?
Daniel Kraus: I was a book reviewer. Like a full-time staff book reviewer for a magazine called Booklist. I did that for a long time, longer than I probably needed to, but I wanted to make sure I built up a sort of buffer in case I didn't sell anything for the next five years.
Max Booth III: I recall you posting a photo a while ago of a bunch of your previous projects. And I don't know if they were outlines, but they were several books with like color coding with the names on them. I think you have a pretty unique way of organizing your projects. Am I onto something?
Daniel Kraus: I don't know. I don't feel like it's very unique. I mean, I have folders, like literal paper folders.
Max Booth III: It seems in depth, maybe. I think the fact that you have a physical book that you keep track of these projects is probably more than many people do.
Daniel Kraus: Yeah. I'm very organized. I do a lot of outlining and a lot of research.
Max Booth III: Were you always that way? Or was that something you found over time?
Daniel Kraus: Pretty quickly. My second book Rotters is when I started doing research, and it was so helpful and changed the plot so much and added so much to it that I got kind of into it. And then I wrote these two books called The Death and Life of Zebulon Finch, which were a massive project that required mountains and mountains of research, just stacked to the ceiling. I'll never do anything like that again. But research became part of the process of coming up with the story. Now there are occasional books, like Blood Sugar or something where there's very little to research. But usually I do a lot of research.
So, here's my folder for The Living Dead.
That's a particularly large book, so this folder is a little bigger. And it kind of is broken down by sections. Like here's a section that's all about the aircraft carrier, tons of information printed out about aircraft carriers. Every book has its own massive outline, and the outlines themselves can be 100 pages. You know, here's one little section of The Living Dead. I know this is not a visual medium, but imagine like a hundred pages of this and you'll get some sense of the depth of the outline, which is the conclusion of all the research that I've done, it's all in here.
Max Booth III: I love research, man, since I discovered how much more I can find in researching a subject when I'm writing a novel. I think it's improved everything. The book I just finished, Maggots Screaming!, a lot of the research and inspiration came from reading The Living Dead, because in the author notes you mentioned the corpse club and Mary Roach's book Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. And I immediately bought that book and it fucking changed my whole direction with the novel I was writing. I mean, the title Maggots Screaming! comes from Stiff, because there's a section where she talks about how maggots make a noise, like Rice Krispies with milk pouring over them. And that, to me, that was just like…well, that's obviously what they sound like when they scream.
Daniel Kraus: Mary has been pretty instrumental. Stiff was probably the key text for Rotters. I read Stiff and then I read a bunch of other things, but that was the key.
Max Booth III: Do you have any tips or advice on research? Like what are your typical methods?
Daniel Kraus: So what I'll usually do is I'll come up with kind of the skeleton of the plot. I'll usually take notes on the idea for a few years or whatever, and then eventually get to the point where it feels like most of the elements are there. They're just somewhere in my notebooks and I start assembling them. So then I get a rough idea of what the shape or the focus is.
And then I go into research. So I'm going to have go on Amazon. I'm not going to buy the books from Amazon, mind you. I just like using their search engines. And I just start searching for the topic and see if there are any general books on the topic, like if I'm writing something about the Vietnam War I'm going to want to start kind of broad and make sure I have an understanding of what it is. And then from zeroing in on specific battles—I'm not writing something about the Vietnam War, by the way—but then you get even more and more specific. Is there a book about what kind of guns they used? Is there a book about what uniforms they wore? You just get closer and closer and closer and end up with a giant stack of books. I don't know that I've ever felt like I've overpurchased when it came to research. Maybe there's been a few books here and there that I didn't use that much, but they're almost always really helpful.
So then now you're really in the weeds. I usually write in the books. So I buy the books, I write all over them and I read stuff and I think, okay, that will be good for this. Oh, that character should do this. This person's name should reference this. I read all the books, take notes, and I have a stack of books with notes all over. And then, the part that I hate, but you gotta do, is that I start going through those books and think god, why did I take so many notes? And try to start taking them into my outline, which let's say is eight pages, and start plopping those notes, transforming them into sort of narrative notes into the outline that suddenly balloons to 60 pages once I start really placing them correctly.
Max Booth III: What is the oddest thing you've bought while researching a book?
Daniel Kraus: Oh, while I was doing Zebulon Finch, I would buy anything at the drop of a hat. I brought several books about Nazi-era Zeppelins. For the aircraft carrier part of The Living Dead, lots of books on aircraft carriers and military ranks and insignias and all that stuff.
In Bent Heavens, I was looking for books on traps, like how to trap animals. I found this great book. I don't have it in this room right now. I think it's called Mantrapping. And it was like one of those books where it looks like it's kind of self-published. And there's something shifty about it, it just felt like this guy knew way too much about trapping humans, and he published this book with these drawings I think he did himself. So that stuff is kind of fringe and spooky, but that's fine. I've always been hesitant to talk too much about it publicly because I'm worried about the author. I don't know what his deal is.
Max Booth III: I'll get him on my podcast and see what he has to say.
Daniel Kraus: Good, good.
Max Booth III: The strangest thing I've bought is a TV Guide from like 1955.
Daniel Kraus: Oh, yeah, I've done stuff like that.
Max Booth III: Just so I know, like, what's on TV the day the book is happening. Sometimes something like that can change the plot, too.
Daniel Kraus: Absolutely, stuff from the era. TV Guides, magazines, anything. When I wrote the 1950s part of Zebulon Finch, I was always buying things that would have advertisements in them because I wanted to know exactly what kind of name-brand products everyone was buying. That retro feel. JCPenney catalogs from way back are a goldmine. You get to see what people were wearing, what they were called, what they cost. It's great stuff. JCPenney catalogs were so omnipresent. Everyone had them. I remember we had them when I was little. You just get a sense of your basic nuclear Midwestern family. Everything they own is probably in there.
Max Booth III: I also am a big fan of the website newspapers.com.
Daniel Kraus: I've had occasional subscriptions when I've have to go deep on something.
Max Booth III: The access you get is amazing.
Daniel Kraus: There's so much stuff that's not on the internet. Like I was investigating this case once for a project that I'm not going to do, but it was this particular murder case that is spectacular and unbelievable and is not on the internet at all. You'd only know about it cause it happened near my hometown when I was kid and it's all there in the newspapers, but no trace of it online, and that's crazy.
Newspapers.com is an incredible resource. Particularly when we look for something specific, I don't remember how it is for just general browsing, but yeah, if you're looking for something specific in the past, it is incredible. And it makes me wonder, like what the future of that is, cause everything is scrubbable now, right? You can't scrub those old print newspapers. They exist, but I dunno.
Max Booth III: I'm doing this book that takes place in the 1950s in Los Alamos. And so I was just reading every local newspaper from the beginning to the end that was published in Los Alamos in the same month that that book takes place. And I was just finding these funny advertisements, like, “Don't forget this Sunday, it’s the local meeting to protest daylight savings.”
Daniel Kraus: Yeah. I mean, that's what I love about particularly specific things. I had a few instances like that where it's like, there's something happening in a sort of finite amount of time in a finite location. And then you can really do that. You can say what exactly were all the things that happened this week and then inevitably it will send you off in new plot directions, because there's so many weird things going on every day.
Max Booth III: That's probably my biggest advice for anyone who wants to really get into research. If you have a specific date the book takes place and a city or a town, read about what happened.
Daniel Kraus: Yeah, or just make it up, make up a time and a location. And just research it, change the name of the town if you want, and you'll just kind of be reminded of the strangeness, the bizarreness of everyday life.
Max Booth III: Before we end this, do you have any further thoughts about research or organization?
Daniel Kraus: I think there's kind of this prevailing idea. I don't think really with writers who've been writing for a long time, but sort of with newer writers. There's a romance to not outlining, you know, you're just going to sit down and write. And you can do that. I've done that. Blood Sugar was like that. But that's not been the case for me at all. If you are plotting out these massive outlines, what they do is they free you up. You don't have to be overly concerned about this plot beat because you know it's sort of there, it's the next stop on the road and you're headed that way and you're going to kind of run into it, but prose wise or whatever, it allows you complete freedom to go wild. It's like organization ends up leading to creator freedom. Not to use the most tired cliche in the book, but it's sort of like jazz music or something where the band’s kind of the bass and the piano—or putting down this sort of beat, but then John Coltrane, because he sort of knows where he's coming back to, he can go the fuck all over the place going nuts, because you have this landing spot that you've put out there.
And that's how you end up writing one look every 10 years, because you take all these long routes that you could have fixed if you had just taken a week to think about it before you started and wrote 300 pages in the wrong direction.
The biggest roadblock to not outlining is, in a weird way, it's often like a sense of almost laziness. Like you don't want to put in the work, right? Like it's not fun for most people to outline. It's more fun just to dive in. Of course it is. But if you do just a little bit of work ahead, whether it takes one week or two weeks or a month, depending on the size of the project, it's going to not only save you gobs of time, it's going to make the project way better.