As Heather pointed out in her last post, the second half of 2017 got a bit overwhelming for us. Heather took on a huge workload, five jobs to be exact. And I balance a lot of stuff even in a normal year: work, community volunteering, political activism, one husband, two kids, three cats (one with dementia) and I own a home that sits on a chunk of land where blackberries have staked a claim for world domination. Currently, I’m holding my own on all the fronts, even with the blackberry war, and I have the scars to prove it.
Last year taught me a lot about being a busy writer. In the second half of 2017 I became an expert on all things competitive surfing, finished editing a few manuscripts, two of which will be coming out later this year (more on them in a future post) and drafted 50,000+ new words during NaNoWriMo.
*Wipes sweat off brow only to have it land on keyboard with a sickening plop.*
Throughout this crazy, wild, frustrating process, I made only one change to my writing routine (well two changes if you count not blogging for several months). What was it? I reorganized my research notes, which were four oversized metal drawers of mayhem that bested me for far too long. This single change helped me carve out more writing time because I spent less time chasing down continuity problems (the names, places and characteristics of minor characters) and looking for scraps of information I’d misplaced.
While Heather streamlined her creative process and online files (read all about that here), I tamed a mountain of physical data.
So here are my three tips for managing a surplus of research.
In the past, I always thrashed about looking for the right files. The file tabs snapped off my hanging folders. My kids played 52 Pickup with my index cards. My notebooks and binders lost their labels. I made countless stupid mistakes because the notes from two projects got scrambled together. Color coding everything from Post-its to paper clips fixed all that. I picked a single color for each project and attached a reference guide to the edge of my desk. Now I never scribble ideas in the wrong notebook, or grab the wrong binder, or stick a file back in the wrong place. How can I? A red folder would stick out too much amongst the blue, yellow or green folders for me to make this mistake.
Sure this sounds simple, but hey it works. And it works in ways I never expected. I transfer everything on surfing research into bright blue; I picked blue because it reminded me of the ocean. Now everything in blue sparks my creative juices. I will be folding laundry and a pair of jeans will send me into writer mode, and it is honestly a Pavlov’s dog worthy reaction, a near compulsion level desire to work on my surfing project ASAP.
Tip: If you do library or museum research for several projects in a single visit, like I do, bring colored index cards with you. Once I get home I slide the cards into clear plastic photo sleeves. It’s fast, requires no rewriting, and keeps the notes organized until I need them. The other option is to take pens in each of your project colors and change your pen every time you change subjects.
After I had my notes sorted into projects, I put all the extra notes, like the future book ideas for each series into a binder. For the series binder I picked a different shade of the original project color. For example, my surfing project files are bright blue, so I picked one in navy blue for my series binder.
I always set the series binder aside. I like knowing what my future plans for the series are, but I don’t want those notes getting in my way, or encouraging me to waste time getting ahead of myself and thinking about the next book. The binder is there, so if I want to drop new research notes or ideas into the binder I can, but in the meantime I stay on task. Also with a series binder I don’t feel regrets about cutting. As I trim out a character or remove a scene from the current novel project, I print it and stick those pages into the series binder. I may use these cut bits down the road or I might not, but at least I know I have them.
Tip: Office supplies come in a rainbow of colors, so look for colors that capture the feeling of your project. You will be living with these files for months, if not years, so don’t pick a color (or colors) you hate. If you can’t find the right color for your binder, pick up one with clear outer pockets and add construction paper in the color of your choice.
Research is a writer’s best friend, but info dumping is the enemy. If you’re anything like me, you collect twenty times the amount of images, location descriptions and offbeat trivia than you need to fill a book, or even a series of books. Since I don’t want my stories to sound like a history lecture, I’ve started to highlight the information I’m using as I pull it from my sources. If I’ve highlighted huge sections of a single article, there is a good chance I’ve overwritten the description and I need to pull it back. If my research notes are snow-white and pristine, I know I’ve either failed to find the right information to flesh out my story, or I’m likely underwriting.
This one trick has saved me so much time in rewrites. The simple act of highlighting my research notes forces me to make hard choices about what to include, and what I want to save for another day.
Tip: If you write for a series and use the same basic research for all of the books you might want to use a different colored highlighter for each project. This will stop you from unconsciously including the same details in every book.
I understand that not every writer uses tons of research, or works on several projects at the same time, but I am a data hound. I needed to find ways to get my research compartmentalized and ready for quick and easy access. There will never be as much time as I would like to write, or to do research, but that’s the breaks. The bramble free world is also counting on me and my pruning shears for their continued protection.
How do you organize your research? Please share your tips in the comments.