Stephanie Morrill is the creator of GoTeenWriters.com 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 Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, 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.
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 timeanddate.com.
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!