Organizing a Mountain of Research

Final fact-checking for King of the Tightrope: When the Great Blondin Ruled Niagara

One of my favorite things about writing nonfiction is research—part scavenger hunt and part archaeological dig into the past. But what’s the best way to organize the resulting mountain of research? It’s a question that always pops up in forums and writers’ groups. The truth is, there is no single right system. Much depends on the topic, the volume and type of materials, and most importantly, each person’s individual style.

Early in my writing career, I flailed my way through index cards, spiral notebooks, file boxes, endless manilla folders. The problem was that, when I needed to find a detail, fact, or quote, it was like searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. So I pursued a more streamlined process—one that allowed easy access for my immersive writing style and comprehensive research style in a low-tech way. When it comes to my work, I want to be able to find what I’m looking for immediately. For some writers, software programs like Scrivener or Evernote are perfect tools for that goal and their own styles. For others, the spiral notebooks and index cards that make me a little dizzy, are ideal. To each her own! I experimented widely until I settled on a system that works for me. No doubt, my process will evolve over time, but here’s my current 4-step system:

#1—Research like the dickens—beyond the obvious sources

#2—Create digital file folders for thoughtfully-labeled, easily-sharable, digitized or scanned documents, interview transcriptions, etc.

#3—D-ring binders—the perfect adjustable container.
* If the book is topical, I organize the binder by related sub-topics.
* If the book is historical or biography, I organize chronologically, with necessary sub-topic categories, too.
* I print the most reliable sources for the binder.

#4 Create a Book Bible—
* Open a Word document and turn on Navigation Pane or Document Map (usually under the Sidebar option)
* Create category headings using a heading style, which automatically triggers the navigable sidebar, like a table of contents. Clicking on one of the headings jumps the cursor to that section of the document. No more scrolling. Nifty, huh?
* Extract relevant quotes, details, information from the binder sources, books, and interviews, and type them under the appropriate headings, with citations. (Most often, a single source, like a book or newspaper article, has information that fits under multiple categories. For example, a single eyewitness account for King of the Tightrope can include rope information, Blondin’s background, Niagara details, and Blondin’s costume—all of which can be extracted for different category headings. This is especially important when there are conflicting details across sources. It’s much easier to scrutinize disparities when the accounts are in one place.

Creating a book bible is tedious and time-consuming, and the process makes me grouchy. But once completed, I feel empowered and confident. A single book bible (usually 50-100 pages for a picture book) contains the most relevant and important information for my book project in one Word document. When does it come in handy? When it’s time to craft a bibliography; when I need to share a source with my editor; when I’m knee-deep in revision or rewrites and need to quickly find information; if anyone questions the content in my nonfiction narratives. And just imagine how ready I’ll be if Hollywood comes knocking, or if an opportunity related to one of my books arises in the future, when the research is no longer fresh in my memory.

Could I write a nonfiction picture book without researching as deeply and as widely as I do? Probably. Could I wrangle the research without going the extra mile with my binders and my book bibles? Sure, but it would feel like wearing ill-fitting shoes. I know myself and my immersive writing and research style enough to know that condensing and containing information is what I need.

Writer friends, you do you. Whatever your style, however you roll, allow yourself time to flail around until you find what works best for your unique comfort level. In the meantime, I hope you’ll share your own suggestions in the comments.

Happy researching!

Above: Book bibles for Step Right Up (92-page document), Abraham Lincoln’s Dueling Words (54-page document), and King of the Tightrope (49-page document)
Below: A Sample page from my King of the Tightrope book bible, with partial sidebar visible



Picture book biographies—My most-viewed posts

We’re working to re-establish the blog archives and categories that got tangled up in the recent website import. For now, if you’re looking for past posts about nonfiction picture books or picture book biography (or ies), simply type those terms into the blog search box. You can also find the most-viewed posts below.

*DISCLAIMER: These posts were written in 2010 and 2011, as I was teaching myself how to write picture book biographies by dissecting other books. Since then, picture book biographies have evolved and I have evolved as a writer. When my imaginary household staff, interns, and assistants catch up on the backlog of responsibilities, I hope to return to the topics with a more recent perspective. Til then, enjoy!

NEW! Listen to The Porchlight Podcast where author Cynthia Levinson and I discuss the challenges of writing nonfiction picture books.

Nonfiction Picture Books- the power of THEME

Nonfiction Picture Books – Defining Tight Focus

Nonfiction Picture Books – Language and Tone

Picture Book Biographies with First Person Point of View

Nonfiction Picture Books – The Power of Illustrations

Nonfiction vs. Creative Nonfiction vs. Historical Fiction

Truth Inspired – How Story Dictates Itself

Interview with Marc Tyler Nobleman – BOYS OF STEEL and the Nonfiction Picture Book Genre

Waiting for the “NOW”. When it’s time to start Writing

Stealing, Tweaking, Voice

Alternating POV and Alternating Tense in Nonfiction Picture Books

Dramatic Point of Vew in Historical Fiction Picture Books

To Nonfiction or Historical Fiction. That is the Question

Nonfiction Picture Books – Defining Tight Focus

Research- The Scavenger Hunt of Writers

Do nonfiction picture books always have a story arc?

Research Resources- Start Growing your Cyber Library

From Befuddled to Eureka- Clarifying my narrator’s lens-P.B. Biography

Revising like a Sculptor


SCBWI Grants, the Cost of Research, and My Most Used Research Sites

Interview with Marc Tyler Nobleman – BOYS OF STEEL and the Nonfiction Picture Book Genre

Writing Process Blog Tour

Every once in a while, a nugget of smiley goodness appears in my inbox. That’s how I’d describe being asked by author F.A. Michaels to participate in an ongoing blog tour about the writing process by answering four related questions. F.A. Michaels, or Mic, is the author of some amazing novels for middle grade and young adult readers. Some of those stories will come to life as e-books right off the bat. Others will land on print pages soon. Mic knows that I am passionate about books for young readers and that I enjoy a good ole fashion discussion about the writing process- which is as unique to an author as a fingerprint. I encourage you to take a look at what other authors have revealed, beginning with talented F.A. Michaels here. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

I know, Mic is brilliant, right? Well, now that you’re back, I’ll do my best to enlighten you about how I work.

What am I currently working on?
Lately, my multi-tasking muscles have gotten a workout. In the last two weeks, I did final edits on two books I wrote for the educational market, due out this summer. I’m also kicking around new title options for my debut trade book, a nonfiction picture book coming out next spring from Lee and Low, tentatively titled STEP RIGHT UP: THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL JIM KEY. And speaking of that debut, it will be out in less than a year. Ahhhhhhh! There’s so much to think about and plan for: book launch parties, marketing, the best pen to sign with, how to thank the multitudes of people who have helped me emotionally and craft-wise to bring the book to fruition. I suddenly feel pregnant all over again, stressing over a very long pre-baby to-do list that will lead to one beautiful event.

I’m in the research stage of a new project, but I’ll remain coy for now. Partly to avoid leaks in focus that would allow some of the magic to spill from the mental process by talking about it too soon. Once the story is well rounded, fully spiced, and tightly sealed, I’ll be thrilled to talk about it. For now, I’ll reveal only that it will probably be a nonfiction picture book (unless it becomes something else,) about an almost-forgotten historical event involving war, trains, destruction, kids, adults, hunger, and gifts. I am enthralled by all I am learning and antsy to begin writing. But, it isn’t time yet.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
It’s funny, isn’t it, that we begin our writing careers studying the works and styles of other writers, trying to emulate them. Then, our goal is to be different, original, unique. To that end, I’m not sure how to answer this question except to say that every project I tackle has a bit of me in it. I think that’s true of all writers. There isn’t one characteristic that makes my work different. It is the collective gathering of ideas and the particular voice and spin I give it. So maybe the question should be “What topics and themes am I drawn to?” As I consider the many nonfiction topics I’ve tackled, it’s interesting to observe themes that have emerged organically from each. A reader might correctly assume that I root for underdogs and cheer at success-against-all-odds tales (STEP RIGHT UP: THE STORY OF BEAUTIFUL JIM KEY. Lee and Low, spring 2015.) I like real, fallible people who acknowledge and evolve from their mistakes. (EN GARDE! THE DUELING WORDS OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN. Peachtree, 2016.) I like characters who have the gumption to do what others think is impossible. (Stay tuned.) I cheer for strong women who break through gender barriers. (One newly on submission. Another awaiting first draft.) I like learning about the personal side to historical figures. (old project waiting to be re-visited.) I like people with such conviction, they’re willing to risk their lives to do what’s right. (my old magazine article begging to be a book.)

How does my work differ? I don’t know. I’m not sure that can be answered until I’m at the end of my writing career. Let’s hope that’s a long time from now.

Why do I write what I write?
Much of the answer to this can be found in the previous question, I think. Every year, I promise myself that I will begin my novel and tackle the fiction picture books that I have dabbled with. But, I can’t seem to drag myself away from nonfiction. I love true stories. I like the sense of wonderment and awe when I learn something remarkable. People are fascinating, complicated creatures built by life experiences and dreams. Historical subjects are doubly interesting because there’s an element of detective work and puzzle-solving to realize their stories. What fun! Sometimes, I think I’m drawn to biographies because it’s a way to put logic and order to the human experience which, while we’re living life, is chaotic and disorderly. We learn from the past.

How does my individual writing process work?
People often ask where I get my ideas, which is the first step in any writing process. Ideas come from everywhere. I once wrote a magazine article about fainting goats, after catching a news segment on a local television station. Sometimes, ideas come from snippets or blips or the merest mention in newspapers or magazines or documentaries. Sometimes, it’s a curiosity that sends me to Google. Not all ideas stick. But, when a topic nags me, when I can’t stop the “gee, I wonder…” inner dialog, I know it’s one I must pursue. Something about the topic must hit a nerve with me.

My research begins online, then on to books. I begin to horde copies of newspaper clippings from the day and I’ll even buy a copy of full newspapers if any still exist. It’s an ideal way to gauge what was happening in the community and the world around my subject. If the idea still has me fascinated, I’ll contact any known experts. By now, I have research files on my computer desktop and desk drawer where I deposit photos, newspaper and other articles, historical details, world events, copies of pages from books, etc. Without fail, the folder morphs into a bulging 4″ binder where print documents are cataloged chronologically. Timelines, details and sequences are categorized. Early on, I begin what I call my source notes document that is also broken into categories. From the massive amount of research I do, I extract important (to me) information and implant them into my source notes. Each source is cited on the document, for easy recall. My single-spaced source notes for a picture book biography can easily grow to 50 pages long. The categories grow and, eventually, a theme emerges.  When I begin coming across the same information over and over, I know it’s time to stop researching and start writing.

Information at hand, I outline over and over and over again, keeping an eye on a narrative arc. One of the most difficult decisions about writing picture book biographies is where to begin and end the story. I write, rewrite, scrap the outline, begin again. The last thing I do is pick at my word choices and finesse the voice. Ideally, each story will have it’s own voice, appropriate to the topic.  I send this umpteenth draft on to my agent and cross my fingers. But there’s no time for a break. By then, another topic is nagging at me, begging to be a book.

Mark your calendars for next week, May 5th when author Carmen Oliver and author/illustrator Shelley Ann Jackson will share their own writing processes on their individual blogs.

Carmen Oliver, originally from Canada, is a former Assistant Regional Advisor of Austin SCBWI. She writes fiction and nonfiction picture books and middle grade novels and is represented by Erzsi Deak of Hen and Ink: A Literary Studio. Carmen has a special affinity for adorable picture books. I don’t doubt we’ll hear about sales of her books very soon. Carmen’s blog can be found here.

Shelley Ann Jackson is the current Assistant Regional Advisor for Austin SCBWI while also teaching illustration at Texas State University. Shelley and her husband, Jeff Crosby,  co-illustrated the newly released TEN TEXAS BABIES by David Davis (Pelican, 2014) as well as UPON SECRECY by Selene Castrovilla (Calkins Creek, 2009.) She co-authored and co-illustrated HARNESS HORSES, BUCKING BRONCOS & PIT PONIES (Tundra Books, 2011,) and LITTLE LIONS, BULL BAITERS & HUNTING HOUNDS (Tundra Books, 2008.)  Shelley’s blog can be found here.

SCBWI Grants, the Cost of Research, and My Most Used Research Sites

Whew! Time flies.

The hustle and bustle of spring seemed to arrive early here and with it came the SCBWI grant deadlines of March 31st. Last year, in 2012, I was awarded an Honorable Mention for my nonfiction submission. It was indeed an honor, especially after learning that only six of the 500 entries received such letters. it was flattering, but it wasn’t the $2000 cash award. That particular project is now on submission, but I’m never without a new project.

If you write nonfiction, you know how expensive research can be. To be thorough, we need to travel. Truthfully depicting a person’s life and actual setting requires sensory familiarity. Maybe more importantly, there are undigitized resources sitting in libraries, state archives, historical societies, museums. Too often, when I try to tap into these sources from a distance, I find that the hardworking curators and archivists simply don’t have the budget, time, or staff to copy and mail materials. And, often, no copying is allowed at all. Period. If you want to see it, you have to go in person where you’ll sit in a carefully lit, temperature controlled room, struggling to make copious pencil notes while wearing clunky white gloves. I happen to love that kind of hands-on research. But it is cost prohibitive.

So, I buckled down with my 2013 grant application. I had already snuck in some preliminary research between working on other projects over the past year. Now, I had to give this my full attention. I blocked out the rest of the world (as I always do when I begin a new project) and amped up the remote research. I bought used and rare books and, thanks to my wonderful local librarians, secured others through inter-library loan. I filled a binder with archived newspaper articles, made friends with curators by phone, and identified people to interview. I dug and dug and dug until I felt I understood my character and her chronology enough to form a narrative. Now I could write my 2500 word sample or, in my case, a shorter picture book biography. If I’m fortunate enough to secure that grant, I’ll book my flights to two specific locations where the ultimate research gems are waiting for me.  I can’t let this, my fifth picture book biography, go out to editors until I’ve gotten my hands on these elusive sources.
Click here to learn more about the annual SCBWI Work-in-Progress Grants.

I may have shared these in a previous blog post, but here are some of my favorite general research avenues. Maybe you’ll find something helpful, too. (be sure not to add an ‘s’ in here. Otherwise, you land on Geneaology Bank which might also be a good source, but I’ve never tried them.) (be sure you do include an ‘s’ in here. Otherwise, you land on an Arab site.) (Helpful for for establishing family trees.) (archive for New York Times) (used books) (used, rare books) (Library of Congress)
Obviously, I access museums, historical societies, and archivists related to each individual project, too.

Oh and stay tuned for some long-awaited, happy news. Soon. Very soon.

Waiting for the “NOW”. When it’s time to start Writing

In my last post, I brought up the idea of inspired moments; those rare, unexpected factoids or details that grab us by the throat. Such experiences inevitably enrich our current works-in-progress or inspire brand-spanking-new ideas.

Just that sort of event hit me recently while watching a PBS program. The briefest mention of this man sucked me in like a vortex. I practically ran to my computer to learn more. An hour evaporated while I was tethered to cyber-space, starving to learn everything I could while dinner burned in the oven. I knew instantly that this would be my next project.

Since then, I’ve spent hours each day, combing through 19th century digitized newspaper archives, ordering out-of-print books, sifting a mountain of research material, and sending pleading emails to potential European research sources.

I happen to love research and can spend my life in discovery mode. It’s an addiction, really. Like a gambler, I’m always convinced that the next roll of the dice will present a jackpot. While in research mode, I fight the urge to start writing. It isn’t time yet until I have a three dimensional feel for the subject. Only then can I zoom my writer’s lens to a clear focus, culling a life down until a story arc reveals itself.

So, when is it time to stop the research and finally write? I feel rather like one of those well trained dogs who have been taught not to grab the tasty treat until it’s time; until the trainer says “NOW.” It’s difficult to be inches away, yet be unprepared as yet. That patient voice whispers to me, “wait for it…wait for it… wait for it.” It drives me a little bonkers, but I understand my process. I have to know what made this guy tick. Meanwhile, before fingers hit keyboard, my subconscious is busy visualizing the story so that, when the “NOW” finally comes, I’ll be ready to pounce.

If I had a formal checklist (which I don’t), it would look something like this.

The obvious: Full name, nicknames, birth, death, marital, children, locations

What was he like as a child? hobbies, habits, personality, etc?

The setting: What did my subject see, hear, eat, wear? What would be in his pocket?

What was happening in the world during the subject’s lifetime?

Transportation: How did he get around?

What made this person newsworthy?

What did his supporters think/say? What did his naysayers think/say?

What was his motivation, his drive? What made him tick?

What events or experiences led up to the pivotal moment?

What have his actions taught us about the human spirit?