How to organize research: My Rube Goldberg method and how it is evolving

I have finished two novels and two works of non-fiction, all of which required extensive research, and interviews, and I still don’t know how to organize all that information so it is accessible when I need it. I take voluminous notes, and then end up trying to keep everything in my head. Unfortunately, that doesn’t work too well.

So, as I contemplate writing yet another novel, I am daunted by the prospect of hours of research, and then hours of sorting through it to find what I need. For A Suitable Husband, for example, my notes were all over the place, some on the computer, some on the back of grocery receipts, some in the books that I owned, which I festooned with yellow stickers.

At one point, I decided to type up all my notes, and organize them by topic. That was a major project. I got a 3 ring binder and divided it into sections by topic, made ring holes in my papers (every step takes time!) inserted them into the binder, and then added copies of articles printed from the Internet, as well as copies of pages from library books. This proved somewhat effective, but not in proportion to the time it took to accomplish. However, when I needed to recall information about a certain topic, ie, the Labour Bund, or Hashomer Hatsair, or even, Polish anti-Semitism, I had someplace to look for guidance.

The problem was that I’m pretty sure I lost a lot in this process. My notes, themselves, were too sketchy. Sometimes I jotted down a page number along with a few words to recall what was there, but months later, it was all a blur. Sometimes the notes actually belonged in any number of binder sections, or none of them, and I’d have to read through everything to find them, which was inefficient. I ended up rereading sections of books over and over, attempting to find something that I remembered was there, somewhere.

At another point, I’d tried to organize information on Word, but that turned out to be a time consuming, confusing effort. Word is great for typing documents, even a manuscript, but not so much for organizing research. Every doc opens separately, has to be assigned a folder, named in a way that you can recognize. It’s hard to keep lots of documents open at the same time and see what’s in a folder. Maybe it’s just me. Maybe there are ways to do all these things in Word, but I never figured it out.

And then I wondered, how did Michener do it? Or Follett? Or any of the other historical fiction authors I admire? I looked into it, and it turns out they have assistants! And, in the case of Michener, an enormous study with walls covered with cork-boards full of information. I have no assistant. I work in a corner of my den. There are no walls available for cork-boards. No secretary with a desk outside a spacious office. I needed another approach.

So I bit the bullet and decided to research how to organize research. After days of trying and rejecting a number of solutions, I found Scrivener. I’m using it right now! It’s a program that was designed with authors in mind. It’s set up so you can type documents, kind of like Word, but it puts them in binders and it’s easy to go from one to the other. You can import and export your Word docs as well as pages from the Internet, so everything is together. I am still pretty new at it, and only understand how to use the most rudimentary functions, but so far I really like it and it gives me some hope for the future. I have a few projects going simultaneously, and it’s easy to move from one to the other.

There is still the problem of the best way to take notes and organize them, but this tool makes it much easier. And for my next novel, I am going to start with a much more detailed outline of the characters and the plot. I think that, in itself, will help with organizing the research, as the chapters can each have their own research section. It’s a bit of a work in progress, but it’s a good foundation.

I have to believe other writers, or even college students, struggle with the same issues. If you have any thoughts on the best way to organize research, please share them!

Keep a Journal!

Whenever I’m at a school event or a party, or traveling or wherever, I notice people taking pictures. It’s become so easy, after all, most phones have cameras, and people use them to chronicle their lives. Pictures are nice and capture a moment.

But it’s nothing like keeping a journal.

True, a journal takes a bit more work. You have to actually sit down, pull your thoughts together, write it, maybe even edit it. It seems daunting, so most people don’t do it. But it doesn’t have to be such a big deal. It can be impressionistic, little sketches, a few words to capture a moment, a sentence or two to recall an event. It doesn’t have to be great literature; your target audience is your all-forgiving family. They will be thrilled.

I kept a journal of my son’s activities starting before he was born until he was about eleven or twelve years old. I kept notes on scraps of paper to recall a sweet moment, an expression, a particularly charming interaction at a playground, the little things he did that I found fascinating. I guess it was as much about me, since I was the filter, but it was also very much about him. As he got older, I jotted down remarks he made or reported on conversations we had. Once, when I hadn’t journaled for a while, I ‘interviewed’ him and transcribed the conversation.

I made a file on my computer called “Journal” and whenever I had some time, I typed out a fuller version of the stories that the notes referenced. The important thing is to get a few words down at the time it happens or within a few days. You’d be surprised how, even years later, the fewest words will conjure up memories. Make you laugh. Return you to those early days, before the surly teenager or the responsible adult took form.

But it won’t happen unless you start. Today. With just a sentence. Whether it’s in a beautiful blank journal, like the kind they sell in stationery stores, or the back of a store receipt. Write something down. If you do it on scraps of paper, find a place to keep all the little scraps of paper together, a drawer, a file. Something. Or use Evernote or another notebook software and type notes in your phone. Jot down just enough to give you a clue, so you can remember and write it up later. And remember to date them, so you have some idea of at least the year. You’d be surprised at how the years seem to blend together (or is that just me?)

I haven’t been journaling the last few years, so I’m writing this as much for me as for you. Because taking a moment to write about moments that are funny or charming, endearing, joyful, or just amazing helps you appreciate your own life as well as leaving a record for others. It takes little time.

It’s worth it.

Author Talks

I have been giving Author Talks at libraries and book groups. It’s wonderful to meet readers and potential readers and give them some background on the genesis of the book and the history of the period, and to get their thoughts on the story. I’ve had wonderful, intelligent, thoughtful audiences, so far.

Recent Review for “A Suitable Husband”

4.0 out of 5 stars Absolutely fascinating, September 15, 2012

By Kat from The Aussie Zombie (Netherlands)

I love historical fiction, particularly stories set around 1940s Europe. A Suitable Husband is set in 1930s Poland, a period that also had my interested piqued, but not a setting of any other books that I can remember reading.

A Suitable Husband is the story of one young woman, Bianca, her family and friends, and the struggle of Jews in Poland during the 1930′s. Told from different POVs – primarily Bianca, her mother and her brother, A Suitable Husband delves into the politics and discrimination of that era, as well as age-old family dynamics – the mother that holds the family together, the daughter who dreams of an education and the son who is unsure of which path to take in life.

S.B. Lerner takes the story of a family living through difficult times and magics it into a wonderful mixture of political difficulties, coming-of-age and family sagas.

The characters are vivid and endearing, particularly those of Bianca, torn between doing what is right and what her heart wants, and her mother, Danka, who is determined that her children will have the best life she can possibily provide for them, all the while fighting to keep them safe from the changing attitudes of the Polish people towards the Jews.

And in the midst of a family saga there is also a fascinating look into the Jewish plight in 1930s Poland and their fight to belong, to be independent or simply to build a life for themselves in the face of terrible discrimination.

A Suitable Husband grabbed me from the beginning and didn’t let me go until the end. There were parts that felt a little rushed towars the end and the ending took me a little by surprise and although it wasn’t what I expected, I did think it suited the book and the characters perfectly.

Guest Post from Writer Karen Casey Fitzjerrell

Karen is a fellow writer who had a wonderful story in the Corner Cafe Collection. I asked her to write more about the story in the context of the novel she’s now working on.
This is Karen:

The Who-What-Where-Why of Corner Cafe: A Tasty Collection of Short Stories
by Karen Casey Fitzjerrell

The Blog Book Tour Cafe is an online group of writers who share experiences and brainstorm the ins and outs of promoting written works through social media.

The group “meets” online and through the collective and imaginative minds of its leaders and members, the e-book, Corner Cafe: A Tasty Collection of Short Stories came about. Members were encouraged to submit a short story for the e-book that we hope will help promote our other work. Since BBT is a vastly diverse group, the collection covers just about every reading interest out there.

I had no doubt from the get-go what my submission to the Corner Cafe Collection would be. I’d started my third novel, was about fifty pages into the story, and I realized I needed to tighten those first pages and put my protagonist “out there” in a more clearly defined way. The Corner Cafe call for submissions was just the push I needed to get back on track. I re-wrote the first pages and titled my story, What’s Next.

In What’s Next, Wilson, whose mother never took the time to give her a girl’s name, grew up in her grandmother’s house and relied on her to fill in the gaps of important childhood moments. At twenty three, Wilson is adrift and aimless. But at the same time she believes she is intimately, maybe even spiritually, connected to her surroundings. Namely, the sea and sky. As occurs in each of our lives at one time or another, and more often for some than others, the tiniest happenstance occurs while Wilson sits in a booth sipping soda in her home town Corner Cafe. She grabs at the chance to step away from her routine of try-and-fail, and in doing so discovers direction and what she might do next order to clear a path for a positive future.

I’ve looked for the universality of Wilson’s story. I have some ideas what that might be but I’d like most to hear what readers have to say about her story, as I develop my novel.

I’m extremely grateful to BBT Cafe for pulling The Corner Cafe: A Tasty Collection of Short Stories together. By participating I feel as if I’ve tightened the best of my novel’s opening and at the same time ended up with a beginning, middle and end for a full circle short story. When I get back to Wilson’s story in the coming months, I’ll be as curious as anyone to find out what Wilson discovers in the following chapters.

In closing I send out a very special thanks to Susan Lerner for hosting me on her blog. She is a gifted word artist, one I plan to follow closely as her career unfolds. Indeed, one of the perks of joining BBT has been the special bond of respect and camaraderie in getting to know other writers across the country who seek to have their works read and appreciated.

Karen’s first novel, The Dividing Season

Visit Karen at:

The Corner Cafe, a collection of short stories

A new collection of short stories is out, which includes my story, “Since You Left”. The collection evolved from my writers blogging group that meets on the web.

The book is only on Kindle for now, and not for profit. It’s $.99 (and free this weekend) and any profit will go to a charity promoting literacy.

More about it in a future guest post. In the meantime, people watch at the Corner Cafe.