Monday, February 5, 2018

Ideas For How to Organize Your Research Notes

Stephanie Morrill is the creator of and the author of several young adult novels, including the historical mystery, The Lost Girl of Astor Street (Blink/HarperCollins). Despite loving cloche hats and drop-waist dresses, Stephanie would have been a terrible flapper because she can’t do the Charleston and looks awful with bobbed hair. She and her near-constant ponytail live in Kansas City with her husband and three kids. You can connect with her on FacebookTwitterPinterest, Instagram, and sign up for free books on her author website.

Last week I talked about how I decided what to research early on in brainstorming Within These Lines. Today I get to marry up two of my favorite things in life: Writing and organization.

Within the first few weeks of preparing to write Within These Lines, I ordered dozens of books from the library, read original source documents, watched several DVDs, listened to podcasts, followed the social media accounts for Manzanar National Park, watched online videos, looked through historical photographs, and emailed with a park ranger.

Because I'm relatively new to the world of writing historical fiction, I didn't yet have a system for tracking all my different notes. I found myself with notes on my phone, notes I wrote by hand while reading a book or watching a documentary, articles I had printed out, a Pinterest board, and a slew of helpful websites that I had bookmarked ... and no idea how to bring it all together.

Originally, I wanted to find The Perfect Organization System. (This is a theme in my writing life. Please see Mistakes I Made So You Don't Have To: Wanting To Find The Perfect Novel Writing System for further evidence of this.)

I wanted one that was completely digital or completely physical (a binder, file folders, etc.) but eventually decided that I would need a hybrid. Whatever system you create, remember that your system is just a tool. It’s only effective to the extent that it serves you. The goal is to write your story, not to perfectly code code or alphabetize.

Here are the two parts of my research note organization system:


In my web browser, I created a bookmark folder specific to my story. I bookmarked any research I did online, and any article that seemed like it would be helpful. While I do have a Pinterest board for my story, the reason I don’t like to have everything pinned there is that I only like to pin things that resemble the finished product. My bookmarks folder is a private place where I can save everything without having to give thought to who might see it or what it implies about the story. Often the folder ends up having saved pages for plot lines that I ended up abandoning later.

Folder on my hard drive: Inside the folder where I keep my manuscript, I also have a folder labeled "Research." If I download articles or save photographs, this is where I put them.

Google Keep: This is my favorite app for taking notes. I like that I can use it both on my laptop and my phone, and I like that everything is searchable, taggable, and archivable. Sometimes I'm just jotting general notes about the story, but other times I use Keep for taking notes when I'm reading. Like if a book has images I want to be able to refer to when I’m writing, I will create a note for that specific book, take a picture of the page, or jot down the information I want to remember. Then I'll tag it with my story specific label. Here's a screenshot of some of my Google Keep notes for Within These Lines:


3-ring binder: For a book like Within These Lines where I have a lot of original source documents, I like to have a three-ring binder. For The Lost Girl of Astor Street, I just used file folders tacked up to my cork board. That worked fine, but this time since I was digging deep into a specific historical event, I needed something more.

Here’s how I divided mine:

Front cover: My year-at-a-glance calendar for 1942. You can see from the coffee stains that this lived by my computer for the months I worked on this book. I print these from

Story: Probably obvious, but this is where I put all notes about the story. Not research related, but they need a home too.

Era: This is where I file all my general notes about the 40s as an era, whether it’s the notes I took on what Italian restaurants served before WWII, pop culture notes, an overview of the progression of WWII, whatever.

Fashion: Pretty self-explanatory

Original Source Documents: This is my place for newspaper articles, government documents, and other pieces written during the era that I printed out. I don't always print them out, but sometimes I want to be able to highlight or take notes on the document.

List of Digital Resources: This is the link between my two systems. It's just a piece of notebook paper where I list books that I have notes for that are stored in Google Keep, or original source documents are downloaded on my computer, or stored online somewhere. This is just a way to remind myself of additional resources that I've saved elsewhere.

Lots of writers like OneNote, and I've used that at times for my contemporaries. Scrivener has some cool research organizing capabilities. If you have ways that you keep research organized, I would love for you to share in the comments!


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  2. Sorry, messed that up!

    Your system sounds very helpful and adaptable! Will try it out!

    There's a site called and if you subscribe to it, you get free workbooks the author designed. My favorite is the Character Workbook and the Writer's Planner. They are so helpful! After using them, I thought, I so needed this before I started writing! They are great!

    1. Oh, that's cool! I love resources like that.

  3. I have never heard of Google Keep! Looking into that RIGHT NOW!

  4. This is super helpful to me. Though I'm focusing on my trilogy right now, I also have a bit of research for a post-apocolyptic book I'm working on. I need to find a lot of information on survivalist things like hunting, prepping animals for food (not looking forward to that one), fighting when you have to, and other things like that. I'm excited about all the research because most of the books I've written so far didn't really require research due to being pretty contemporary.

    Thanks for all the tips!


    ~Ivie|Ivie Writes

    1. Yes, it can feel really fun, Ivie! I hope this is helpful to you as you figure out the best way to organize everything you learn.

  5. I really need to update my organizational system. It's a pretty sad mess right now, haha. I jot down notes, then forget where I put them because I don't have one place for everything. Anyway, thanks so much for all the ideas!

    1. Knowing I was eventually going to write this post gave me a kick in the pants, to be honest. For a long time my research was just in piles around my office.

  6. I write fantasy, so I don't do a lot of research. I do, however, have an organizing system.
    In physical form, I have one three-ring binder and one file folder. They hold different things without much rhyme or reason for why. The binder has character profiles, story synopses, and lists--so far, just one list of major cities and one list of magical creatures. The folder has a different, less detailed set of character profiles, as well as a map and sketches of various objects that are important to the story.
    Digitally, I only have one thing: Pictures. I found an online dress up game (one of my favorite tools!) and used it to create all my characters. I have a folder on the computer where I store all those pictures. That's it.
    Simple? Yes. Works for me? Definitely! Would work for other people? Probably not. It's suited for my specific style and the needs of my story.

  7. I haven't heard of Google Keep either. I use Evernote. It's great for a backup of drafts, articles you find on the web and anything and everything else. For research notes from books, I write them out longhand first and then add them to computer files. I also use Pinterest to store images for stories. Love it.

    God bless, Anne Marie :)

  8. Mine is similar except I also use Scrivener, which has the option (SO MANY OPTIONS) of a general research folder but also a "sidebar" to note urls that correspond to a particular section of the manuscript for quick reference. Amazing. I also use comments in Google docs (where I write first drafts) to note research info/sites associated with particular parts of the book (kind of the same thing I do when using Scrivener). Can't wait to check out Google Keep. Thanks!