Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Guest blog: Michelle Prima - Organising research for historicals

When I was asked to contribute an article about writing Victorian romances from an organizer’s perspective, it started me thinking about the process from an entirely different angle. 

When I began writing over 20 years ago, I was a stay-at-home mom.  It was long before I began a career as a professional organizer.  Yet, when I look back, I realize writing historical romances perfectly fit my personality.  Why?  Because of the extensive research I had to do for each book and the need to keep it in order.

Rather than write about my own familiar world, I chose the Victorian Era. That meant having to delve into every aspect of daily life in the 1800s.  That wasn’t a problem for me, because I love to learn as much as I love to write.  The problem was how to keep it organized to find it when I needed it.  After all, although I read everything I copied, I couldn’t remember every detail.

I began by indexing every resource I used.  Mind you, this was when the internet had first appeared, so most research was done in the library.  I either wrote notes by hand, or made a photocopy.  So I needed to keep track of every book.  Now, I use less books and more online resources.  But I still index my sources.

I found the easiest way to organize my research was by subject.  That way, if I was writing a scene where the characters were at a dinner party, I could quickly find my notes on social graces and food.  Where should the Lord of the Manor sit, who sat to his right, and how did they file into the dining room?  These notes came from many different sources, so I wanted a simple way to keep track of the source.  I didn’t want to have to write the bibliographic information every time I added a note to my pages, so I created an indexing system.

For every book I used, I photocopied the title page, then assigned it a number.  So my index looked like this:

#1.  “Title”, author, publication date, publisher, ISBN# and where I found the book (library, etc.)

The list was as long as it needed to be for the number of sources I used.

When I wrote notes from my sources, or copied a page, I recorded my index number by the entry.  If I ever needed to check a fact, I’d be able to look up the source, then find the original book again.  This was especially helpful when I began another project and wanted to look further into a subject that I’d only skimmed for the previous novel. 

All my notes went into a binder, with tabbed index pages to mark each subject--Architecture, geography, transportation, etc.  The binders worked well because I could move pages around or expand into a second binder. 

While this method still works well, my computer works better now.  I still use an indexing system.  I compose notes in a Word document, and keep the index in an Excel spread sheet, which is both searchable and sortable. 

How you file your research isn’t as important as filing it.  You never know when an editor or reader will question your facts.  If you’ve kept detailed records, you’ll be able to support your story.


Michelle Prima has been writing historicals for over 20 years.  She is a former Golden Heart finalist, and contributor to magazines and web sites.  She is the author of Researching the British Historical: The Victorian Era and 101 Organizing Tips for Writers.  Visit her web site at: for more writing tips.   


Kathy Otten said...

Great information. I suppose I'm still at the notebook stage. I like having it open on my desk. For me it's easier to flip from cattle prices to train schedules in a notebook than to pull up word documents. I have a research notebook for each book and I'm working on a master set, which I should probably keep in my computer. I just hate taking the time away from writing to do it.

Gilli Allan said...

This post has reminded me why I DON'T write historical fiction. Much better fun reading it!

Thank you for your tips on research, an approach that could be used for any subject.

Anonymous said...

Wow! I'm terrible but pen and paper work for me... these are some great tips and I hope one day to apply them as I force myself to go paperless...

Anonymous said...

Too organized for me! Perhaps it's because I bounce around so much between eras (3rd century Eastern Roman Empire, Elizabethan England, 1950s US) I create one folder for the novel and put all my research into that. Perhaps it's because I can use MS Explorer to do key word searches through the documents that I don't feel I need to categorize the information. Each file has the citation info at the top so I don't need to recreate that. Cheers, Don Maker

Linda Acaster said...

I was interested to read how you did it digitally, as I am moving from a ringbinder for the current wip.I've used Evernote, which has tags, but I'm not convinced I could drag up required info when it becomes bloated. I guess I'm just being wary. The joy of having a hard copy in a ringbinder is that short of fire it will not suddenly disappear!

Walt Mussell said...

Excellent post. I've done a bit of both, keeping information on pen and paper as well as on computer. I need better organization though.

Michelle said...

Thank you all for your comments. As convenient as computers are, I'm still a paper and pen girl at heart. I still use a paper planner, with my Outlook backup!

Sherry Gloag said...

Some great tips. I have just started filing on the computer but still need to hone it down a bit more. Found some interesting tips here. Thank you.