By 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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.