Dear Story Nurse,
I have many writing problems, but I have finally have isolated one that may respond to advice!
Here is the question: how do you organize a large body of research for a novel?
The book project I’m concerned with is set in a different country from my own, during a couple of years of significant historical events. I have about 45,000 words of a rough draft, though mostly I plan to completely rewrite it.
I have an idea of the basic point-in-time facts I need to acquire—”who did what when” stuff—and the beginnings of what I want to know about the setting—what a cheap flat in [blah decade] in [blah city] smelled like and what sort of kitchen appliances people had in that neighborhood (though I have issues with something like ADHD so it’s very hard for me to organize even that).
But a big part of the story is more psychological and emotional, and trying to figure out how personal and national history shapes a person, and what things come to the surface when you put people under pressure at a moment that is clearly historic: and this is proving very hard to research indeed. I’ve purchased twelve books of history about this country covering periods and topics I thought could be relevant to how a modern person might view themselves (I realize this was a bad idea, please don’t yell at me). I’ve read a couple of these, but I’m struggling to process them into what’s relevant and what’s not.
To be clear, it’s not that I think that there is exactly such a thing as “national character”—but I do think that the stories that we are told about our histories, our countries, our cities, our families, and ourselves over and over and over again do matter to how we think about life and how we see ourselves and others. So I’m looking for facts about what happened and where, but I’m also looking for historical events that have national and personal emotional resonance.
How do you suggest organizing all these layers of research for my story—the purely factual, the experiential, and the spiritual/emotional stuff?
Disorganized Potato (they/them)
Dear Disorganized Potato,
This is a wonderful question. Fortunately you have a lot of flexibility, because any organizational system you come up with will be solely for your use, so you can fine-tune it to suit your needs. And turning those nebulous concepts into organizable chunks of data isn’t as hard as you might think.
Before I get into this, a note of caution: organizing things can be extremely seductive, especially if it’s something that triggers your ADHD hyperfocus. Anytime you’re about to start an organizing round, check in with yourself:
- Am I only doing this to procrastinate writing?
- Do I have at least a vague plan for what I’m going to do and how I’m going to approach it?
- Do I have a defined end point (I’ll stop by 5:00) or other limitation (I’m only organizing info about 1945 Paris)?
Remember that the goal of organizing is to facilitate writing. If the organizing gets in the way of writing, settle for being disorganized.
The purpose of organizing anything is being able to find what you need quickly and efficiently, so your best path to choosing a system is to identify scenarios in which you’re likely to need information, and then determine both what type of information you’ll look for and where you’re immediately inclined to look for it.
In the agile method of programming, these scenarios are called user stories. They traditionally take the form of “As a _______, I want_______ so that _______.” Since you’re the only person using your information, you might try creating user stories that look like this: “When I’m _______, I want _______ so that _______.”
When I’m developing characters, I want to know what their childhood experiences were like so that I have a sense of how that shapes their adult selves.
When I’m writing domestic scenes, I want to know what objects would be in the house so that I can show characters interacting with the world around them.
When I’m revising, I want a quick way to check the historical timeline so that I can be sure the events in my book take place in the right order.
You can organize the same information multiple ways for use in different scenarios. For example, let’s say I want to cook something, so I pull down a cookbook from the shelf. If my primary concern is making a good dinner, I’ll look in the dinner chapter; if I have some broccoli to use up, I’ll check the index for broccoli recipes; if I don’t want to have to flip through the whole book to find something I think I’ll like, I’ll turn to a page I’ve already marked with a dog-eared corner or a scrap of paper. One cookbook, three scenarios, three systems.
Once you have your user stories, which tell you what types of information you’re likely to want, the next question is how you’re generally inclined to look for information of that type. You can think of this as a follow-on user story: “When I need _______ I _______.” Some of the many possibilities:
- “When I need factual information, I open a reference book.” (So you need a way to know which reference book is appropriate, and perhaps where to look within that reference book if its built-in organization system isn’t useful for your purposes.)
- “When I need factual information, I pull up a website.” (So you need to have your browser bookmarks usefully named and sorted.)
- “When I need to verify a character trait, I look in my story bible.” (So your story bible needs to be organized in ways that help you quickly find what you’re looking for.)
- “When I need information about my setting, I search my reference document.” (So you need to have all your data in some single searchable place with keywords used consistently throughout.)
- “When I’m trying to describe a character or scene, I glance through all my visual references until something jumps out at me.” (So you need something like a Pinterest board or a cork board with different types of images grouped together.)
I’m emphasizing your inclinations because there’s no reason to train yourself to do something new when you already have habits and assumptions and expectations. Personally, I’ve never been able to dip in and out of print reference material; I transcribe the relevant parts into a digital document I can search. This also lets me make use of information long after I’ve returned the book to the library. Other people naturally pile up books to have at hand or put everything in a three-ring binder. Everyone’s different. All these ways of organizing your materials are fine. Go with what works easily for you.
In most cases, especially if you’re working with a wide variety of resources and materials, you’ll want to create at least one index and possibly several for use in different scenarios. Even if your reference materials are primarily in print, it may help to have your indexes be digital documents so you can easily revise, expand, and search them. (I can’t overstate the value of the search function.) I use a program called TaskPaper that lets me put clickable tags (beginning with the @ character) on individual lines for easy grouping. My research index for my Regency romance looks like this, with each item a link to an online resource:
- Yorkshire accent reference video @Nathaniel @primarysource
- Book of stories in Yorkshire dialect @book @Nathaniel @primarysource
- A View of London @guidebook @London @primarysource
- A Voyage of Discovery to the North Pacific Ocean @exploration @primarysource
- The Picture of London, for 1803 @guidebook @London @primarysource
- Homosexuality in Eighteenth-Century England @queer @London @secondarysource
- The Literature of the Georgian Era @literary @secondarysource
I also have a history index, and at some point I may do separate character and place indexes along with a story timeline.
When I was working on a very different project, a book of Popular Mechanics articles predicting the future, I had a TaskPaper index of articles organized by broad topic, with each article tagged with the year it was published and keywords for both subject matter (@home @science) and book planning (@sidebar @illus). I also had a spreadsheet with information that the production team needed, such as the issue number and page for each article. Different needs, different systems.
Years ago I used a free homemade wiki hosted on PBworks for organizing information about an epic fantasy series (that I might finish… someday). I found it worked especially well for worldbuilding info—I was basically making a mini Wikipedia for my created world, and the familiar interface made it very easy to find whatever information I needed. But it did turn into a huge project that often distracted me from writing, so I probably wouldn’t go that route in the future unless I wanted to deliberately play around with creating linked metafiction (which I might do… someday). Mileage varies! Try things out and see what works or doesn’t.
If you’d rather do your organization in print, look into bullet journaling techniques, and don’t be put off by all the people creating journals that are elaborate works of art. At its heart, bullet journaling is extremely simple. You can dress it up if you want to. You don’t have to. Here’s a really detailed look from Paper Planning magazine at how writer Burgess Taylor uses bullet journaling as a companion to a story bible and a writing notebook.
As for how to turn nebulous concepts such as emotional resonance of major events into something relatively concrete that you can index and corroborate with other information, I suggest reading psychology or self-help books (ideally aimed at laypeople), as that is precisely what they do. Try searching Amazon’s book section for “disaster and mental health” or “emotion and politics” or “nationalism psychology” or similar phrases pairing large-scale and personal-scale keywords. Depending on the time and place you’re writing about, or the particular psychological configuration you’re concerned with, there may be more specific resources. If you see a title that seems sort of relevant but not quite right, try checking the “people who liked this also liked” recommendations. (And then, if possible, please get the books you want from independent bookstores or the library.) Once you find a book that’s useful, skim through it and note down anything that feels like it might apply to or resonate with your characters.
Another option is to google “[term] quotes” and see what pithy things people have had to say about it. If you’re trying to get a sense of different approaches to a complex topic, this can be surprisingly useful.
Once you have a numbered list of terms and phrases for each concept, you can create a psychology index for each character. Here’s what that might look like:
- Patriotism concept list
- “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” (revolutionary patriotism)
- Always stands for the national anthem (performative patriotism)
- “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism.” (populist patriotism)
- Psychology index for Lee
- Anger: 1, 7
- Depression: 3, 4, 6
- Patriotism: 2, 3
- Resilience: 4, 7, 8
This exercise can teach you a lot about the community you’re writing about by showing which approaches are common among your characters and which are uncommon. It might also give you some ideas for interactions around commonalities (John and Jim both feel very patriotic) and differences (Jim is into type 1 patriotism and joins a militia, John is more a type 3 patriot and organizes protest marches).
That should be enough to get you started. As long as you keep your user stories in mind, focus on what helps you find information quickly, and don’t fall down the rabbit hole of making your organization systems exhaustive or shiny, it shouldn’t take too long for you to come up with solutions that make writing easier and more fun as well as more grounded in solid facts and research. Keep trying things and see what works.