Vision: A Resource f

 Lazette Gifford
Publisher & Editor



Organizing Research

By Lazette Gifford
Lazette Gifford

Any writer of worth will someday have to do research.  Some writers will start researching material with their first manuscript, and though sometimes stories can fly just on your personal knowledge, eventually you will want to write outside your box.  You are a writer and exploration is part of the lure and joy of the career.  Besides, you'll get tired of working with only a few props.

Before you start your research remind yourself that this is not a school project.  It's a treasure hunt, and you get to decide not only what you will learn, but what to do with it when you write your story. All the research in the world won't help you if you're not prepared to save the results in a manner that will make it easy to access.

Most people will use note cards for research.  They are handy, relatively cheap and easy to manipulate.  There are other ways to jot down data, from a notebook (paper or electronic ) to a handy little PDA.  It doesn't matter.  There are still basics that you can adapt to each method so that you can organize the notes.

Step 1:  Creating a Master List

It is important to create a way to easily sort material and retrieve the information.  In order to do this it helps to have several tags pre-defined.  To do this, you need one note card on which you will write out the long version of the tags so that you can have it handy for reference as you do the research.

The first tag is the Project Title.  You will writ it on the upper right hand corner of each note card as you do your research.  (The location is arbitrary.  You may find that the left hand side or the bottom works better for you.)  Let's say you are going to write a fantasy or historical novel set in London in 1868.  Either one will take the same basic research.  If you don't have a title for the novel yet, this might work as the Project Title:

London 1868 (L68)

The first is the full title, of course, and the second is a handy tag for the rest of your cards, saving you considerable time.  And yes, you will want to put this tag on the cards for future reference.  It means that you will never have to look up the same information for a later book because you already have it, and accessible, on this set of cards.

The second set of tags are research parameters.  You will likely add to these as you go on, but you can get a good start by just logically thinking about what you need to know.  There are several important aspects about the world that need research:

There are probably others that you'll want to add.  And, of course, the list will be completely different for a different project.  A science fiction project may have a list that includes stellar mass and spectrum, distances in light-years, military ranks, etc. 

Having defined your initial list, jot the terms and their shortcuts on the master note card. 

The third designation is the type of material used in the research.  You can jot this on the back of the note card so that you leave the front open for more research parameter tags: 


Step 2: Two Sets of Cards 

There's one thing that will always drive us nuts when we are doing research.  We write down something on a note card that makes perfect sense at the time, but a week later we realize that there was some important bit of information left out.  This isn't a problem if you know where you got the information from and can go back and look it up again. 

So this is where the two sets of cards come in.  One set is going to be the key to the material you looked up, and the other set the actual notes. 

Now, once again, remember that this isn't a school project.  You don't need to write out publishers, ISBNs (though they can be helpful if you really like the book and want to order a copy later) or anything else but the bare necessities. 

One thing that will help is to take a few cards and jot the project code down in the upper right and corner (L68).  If you have a stack of books, you can also do the book code (BH-1, BH-2) for them. 

In this case, I pulled a book from my shelf that I almost always use for the first step in historical research. 


Note the upper line codes -- the Project on the right, and BH-1 (Book Home 1) on the left.  Now, I'll do a couple notes from this book: 





Again, note the codes I've used -- L68 for the project, BH-1 for the book and HE for Historical Event or HP for Historical Person.

This led me to another book, so I made a new card for it: 


And a couple notes taken from this (truly wonderful) book: 



Again -- remember the codes. They'll help you sort the material later.  Also note that in the last two I put the page number on. This is because the first book is chronological, and it's easy to find the year and spot where the material came from. The second, being more 'novel like' is harder to track down individual notes. 

Part 3: Now what do I do with them? 

Now that you have the cards, what are you going to do with them to make it easy to access the data -- not only for this book but for anything in the future. 

There are a number of ways to store the cards.  First, of course, are those little cases made especially for this type of card.  There are also dividers for them, and you can write the 'Research Type' on the tops and drop the cards in according to the list.  A single box for each project would work well (as long as you don't have too many projects!)

Some people use photo albums -- the type where you can slip pictures into the plastic sleeves.  These are good after you've finished your research -- if you are still doing it, then moving the cards around is difficult and time consuming.  You can devote a book to each project and shelve them easily. 

Of course you can also include (in both the above methods) sections on character creation, worldbuilding, outlines, and anything else you need. 

The idea is to sort by the 'research type' code.  You will likely start making subdivisions once you have the first sort done.  In this case, I can see that there might be many cards for Disraeli and Gladstone, gaining them a subdivision from the HP section.

If you are able to sort and store the material you may never have to recreate research again.  The trick is to be able to locate the material later, and any system you use should allow you to find and access the data you need with a minimum amount of fuss. After all, if it becomes too hard to locate the material, it might be just as easy to go research it again.

For the more adventurous types, there is also database creation. While that means typing up a lot of notes, it does make sorting far easier and allows you to make backup copies.


 In this simple version I made several tables and linked them so that I could do drop down lists of the codes and anything else that I might have to keep typing in.  I can add any codes to the 'Research Type' Table that I might need in future, making them available for other projects.  By adding a keyword listing I'll be able to call up any information I have on file for Disraeli.  If I were to do this seriously, I would likely add location and date sections as well so that reports and queries and be called up using those sections as well.

Whatever you decide, just keep in mind that no amount of research is helpful if you can't access the results.  Find a method that works for you, and keep to it with each book.  It will save you considerable time in the future.