Organizing My Research

A_tower_of_used_books_-_8449Oh, how I wish I could tell you I’d discovered a surefire way of organizing my research. Sadly, I can’t, because I haven’t. I try, but…well…the mountains of material I amass can be just so hard to wrangle, especially for a naturally disorganized person like myself.

If you peeked into my office today you’d see that a long table has been squeezed in next to my already-oversized desk. Stacks of books and note-filled ledger pads cover both. As for the floor, you can just barely see it for the piles of photocopied documents—newspaper articles, magazine pieces, letters, eyewitness testimony, diary entries, scrapbook pages, travel logs and more. Sounds like chaos, right? But there is method to my messiness. All these materials pertain to the life of Buffalo Bill Cody (my latest biographical subject), and every pile represents a division of his life—“childhood in Iowa,” “childhood in Kansas,” “childhood after father’s death,” “involvement in Civil War,” “Lulu Frederici,” and so on. If you pawed through any of these piles (and I’d have to yell at you if you tried) you’d find the documents’ margins littered with my comments, questions and notations. Some are almost entirely yellow from my zealous use of the highlighter. Others are completely covered in sticky notes. If possible, I like to physically have the source from which I’m quoting. This explains the piles. It also explains why a trip to, say, the McCracken Research Library in Cody, Wyoming results in huge UPS bills. I copy everything I can. I ship it all home.

Those aforementioned books also relate to Cody. Titles include all three of his autobiographies, as well as memoirs written by his friends, family, business associates, and performers in the Wild West. While I don’t use highlighters on these (most date from around 1900), they are riddled with color-coordinated tabs, bookmarks and yes, more notation riddled sticky notes.

And then there are my notes – hundreds and hundreds of notecards. These are dropped into an accordion file, again arranged by topic. When I’m ready to write, I pull them out, shuffle them around, and lay them out in the order the information should be presented. It’s a bit like that sliding tile puzzle. But it’s amazing how many new connections I discover within the material by simply shuffling those notecards. 

The clutter doesn’t stop here. I also use a wall-sized corkboard to lay out the book’s big scenes — those moments I want to come in close on. These scenes, also written on notecards, are tacked onto the board in order of their appearance in the book. On the back of each notecard I jot down the sources where facts and details for that particular scene can be found.

Confused yet? I also use colored notecards to help me keep track of the story’s “characters.” For example, when writing The Family Romanov I used white notecards for all information related to Nicholas and Alexandra, as well as the kids. Lenin and other revolutionaries were assigned pink notecards (I thought it was funny at the time); Rasputin was yellow, while workers, peasants and soldiers were assigned green cards (no pun intended).

One last step. While drafting, I jot sources abbreviations in the manuscript’s margin. At the end of the day’s writing, I go back and add these margin citations to my master list.

And does all this keep me from losing attributions? Hardly. Inevitably, I lose things. This results in either one of two actions. Either I waste an entire afternoon searching for a specific quote, or I end up removing it (or substituting it) from my text. Frustrating? Yes. But I’ve come to accept it as part of the process… at least part of my process.

People ask if I ever use research help. I can’t imagine it. Research is so organic. I never know where it’s going to lead, or what’s going to spark my curiosity. The questions I ask about a subject stem from the research. In fact, research begins the research. What I mean is, only after I’ve done a fair amount of exploration on a subject do I begin to understand what it is I really want to research. For example, I hadn’t considered including the lives of workers, soldiers, and peasants (much less first hand accounts of their lives) until research led me to Russia.   I’m convinced that if I don’t do all the research myself, I’ll miss that vital something that changes the course of the work.

3 thoughts on “Organizing My Research

  1. Ha, a method to your messiness! Research is fascinating especially when it goes off on an unexpected tangent, and I couldn’t imagine farming it out to anyone else. My entire attic office must have resembled yours when I researched Irving Berlin’s 101 years for my YA bio. Embrace the mess!

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