You can tell Fall is well on the way, especially if you look at the parts of the country getting hit with all the heavy rainfall we've been seeing this past week. Graphic pictures on TV show us our family, friends, and colleagues battling the aftereffects of Mother Nature becoming disorganized from her normal routine. But even in the rainiest of weather one can see a certain organizational flow to humans having to deal with it. Even strangers will start to line up as they wait to see what comes next.
That's how I'm approaching my research for the non-fiction picture book I'm currently working on. While I'm not exactly sure what I will uncover, there is certainly a process I can follow to gather the information I find along the way...
STEP THREE: ORGANIZED CHAOS
I've picked my topic and initial contacts have been made to learn more about this historical event I'm researching. Now the information is starting to come in and I can't just have scraps of paper towels lying around where I've hurriedly scribbled notes from a phone call. There has to be a reason for the chaos of collecting information, a lineup of ideas which will eventually form a pattern of the path my story will take.
When I started this project the first thing I did was buy index cards. A lot of them. I have about 500 of them because one can never be too prepared when a primary source decides to call me when I'm far away from my computer and have to take handwritten notes. I keep a constant stack in a bright purple index card carrying case in my purse, along with my cool gel pen for easy access. It's like tucking a stenographer in my bag, always ready to take notes whenever I need her. My index cards are broken up into three sections because there are three parts to this event...the "star" of my story, the "catalyst" which took my "star" into the pages of history, and the people it affected one dark, autumn evening some fifty years ago. As I gather information I put date, time, contact info, and reference points on the back of each index card before tucking them into their section for later study.
I also have a large, multicolored (I have found bright colors keep me energized) accordion file folder for other material. Whenever I come across a newspaper article or something I've read in a book I will make a copy of it, include the appropriate reference info and file it away under a number of headings such as "primary sources", "newspaper articles", "internet", "expert", "photos", etc. I've also created a survey of about 15 questions I send to every primary source to capture their first-hand account information and as they come back I read them to see if I need to ask more questions before tucking them into the file folder as well.
Before I even began my in research I created a rough outline of how my story will flow. I begin by introducing each of the three sides to the story (beginning), then move on to how the "perfect storm" event was created (middle) and wrap things up with where are the people and things in my story now, fifty plus years later (ending). I see this story in my head. My outline provides the organized lineup for the somewhat chaotic information coming in right now, my index cards allows me to capture the smallest details flying past me, and my file folder keeps everything in a nice holding pattern until I can fit all the pieces of this puzzle together.
Next week I will talk about how I will decide what information to put in my story and which bits of research I kick to the curb!
There you have it. One writer's ongoing process for making sure her non-fiction story comes together smoothly. It makes me wonder though if I have left something out? What tips or tricks do YOU do to make sure your non-fiction research stays on the "write" track? Let me know in the comments...