#62: How to Organize Research Material

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?

Best regards,

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.

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