By Natalie Bright

Tracking and Controlling Research Notes

Research notes and piles of reference books have totally taken over my life. At the recent Western Writers of American conference this past June, I had the opportunity to visit with two historical novelists. My question to them—what system do you use to track and control your research?

Three-Ring Binder

As seat mates on the bus during a field trip, Nancy Plain explained her notebook system. She fills a three-ring binder for every book she writes. The information includes hard copies of information she might need to refer to again such as pictures, online materials, interview notes, or library materials. Sections are identified by subject. Main take-away idea for me was a section in the binder just for quotes. These will be an important component for the final book, whether its fiction or nonfiction. Good quotes relating to time period or history of your story can be used for promotion in the way of tweets or other social media posts. I

ndex Card System by Subject

I’m a huge fan of Lucia St. Claire Robson. I approached her at the WWA Conference between sessions and posed the same question to her. As a former librarian, she uses a fascinating index card system. Believing that, “75% of the work is organization” when writing historical fiction, she has developed a system to keep track of those thousands of details any researcher might need for their novel. She scribbles notes on 4×6 index cards, using a different color for each work in progress. Every source is assigned a letter and a number, starting with #1. Cards are then filed by subject. As she writes, she prints each chapter and might add note cards to the pile, if she comes across anything that’s relevant. After the first draft is done, she goes back and picks up that information needed for each chapter based on any additional research and the notations in that pile. Here’s the thing about her system: any issues that might come up from an editor or fan, can be readily answered and verified. Mr. Robson has established a reputation for being a meticulaous researcher. Her books certainly reflect that. You’ll find detailed imagery that transports you back in time.

For more about Ms. Robson’s system, read her blog here: http://www.luciastclairrobson.com/featured/just-call-me-lucia-minutia/

Time to Get Busy

As I type this, on the floor behind me are separate piles of spiral notebooks along with manuscript drafts and copies of stuff related to my novels. On the shelves are open baskets for each book title, where I’ve tossed related material. How do I find something? You might have guessed already. I have to sift through the entire pile. What a mess. I’m hoping to combine both of these author’s systems and get a handle on my stacks and stacks of research.

To minimize the mess on the floor, I’ll use the binder or notebooks to file away the information I’ve amassed to date. Because I’m a junky of used books and dusty old book stores, I’m starting a card file system right away to identify these reference materials. As time permits, I hope to go back through some of my earlier spirals and make index cards for those factual tidbits as well.

For more information about these novelists and their work, visit their websites listed below.

Nancy Plain is an award winning author of biographies and histories for children and adults. Her most recent work is THIS STRANGER WILDERSNESS, about the life and art of James Audubon. www.nancyplain.com

Lucia St. Clair Robson is most famously known for her book about Cynthia Ann Parker, RIDE THE WIND. As her first book, it won the Spur Award, made the New York Times Best Seller List and was included in the 100 Best Westerns of the 20th century. www.luciastclairrobson.com

Keep researching and keep writing WordsmithSix peeps!


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