Research is an essential component of all the writing I do. Both my fiction (historical) and nonfiction (science policy) require a lot of upfront research as well as what seems like continuous research during writing and editing. Luckily, I enjoy research. But sometimes it can seem endless. There’s always more to research.
I hand-write my research notes. I find I retain the information better, but I also end up with a lot of random notes. At a certain point, it begins to feel overwhelming and I know it’s time to organize.
Dump out all the puzzle pieces
I hit a critical point a couple of weeks ago when the myriad notes for my upcoming project became overwhelming. I have more preparatory research to do, but I needed to organize my notes so I could begin to more clearly see the story in my head.
I went to Montessori school through the sixth grade. I don’t know whether I’m wired this way or Montessori molded me—probably a bit of both—but I am a tactile learner. I’m also a detail person, which is why the sheer volume of notes was setting me on edge. I approach organizing my research as a puzzle to solve. Just like building a puzzle, you’ve got to dump out all the pieces first to see what you’re working with.
Put the puzzle together
My family went camping for the weekend, so I had the house to myself. I spread all my papers out on the floor and began to group them in themes, which is similar to how I start work on a puzzle. I didn’t realize I did this until I was teaching my daughter how to deal with frustration in solving a puzzle when she was about four. We were doing a dinosaur puzzle and she became overwhelmed, pushing the pieces away in frustration. I talked her through it, saying we would focus on one dinosaur at a time. Let’s only build the stegosaurus, find all those pieces first. We did that one and then moved onto the next one, one section at a time. At eight years old, she has internalized this. When we get a new puzzle, she announces which section she will do first and which one she has delegated to me.
It’s the same way with my notes. I organized my research one section at a time. I made a sheet for each character and each location. Then I figured out the timeline—it’s historical fiction, so I needed to pinpoint the date where I wanted to start and write down the real historical facts that happened in that time frame. As I built each section, the story began to crystallize in my head.
With a rough storyboard in my head, I started to jot down scene ideas. With previous projects, I was able to come up with a timeline with relatively little stress. But with COVID brain, things felt muddled and squishy. Now that this process of building my puzzle was bringing clarity to my story, I needed to connect some dots. One scene here, another here—what would it take to get from one to the next? Where was that piece that connected two sections? I was solving the puzzle. The pieces were all there, I just needed to take them one section at a time.
Once writing begins, it’s hard to resist the urge to do research deep dives. As I mentioned in my NaNo prep newsletter, writing and editing are different processes. For me, I want to get the first draft down. So, I’ll mark a section with “TK” (to come), make a note in the notes section in Scrivener, and keep going. Research in the editing phase can be more targeted—you’re in the engineer mode rather than the artist mode of creating.
Organizing my research works well for other parts of my life as well. We’ve been in quarantine for over eight months with no end in sight on top of a looming election, climate change, and everything else. Some things we have no control over, but some things we do. When things feel overwhelming, break them down into smaller sections. Build the puzzle one dinosaur at a time.