Method to My Madness – Historical Research Note Tracking

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One of the most time consuming, rewarding, and frustrating parts of writing historical fiction is doing the historical research.

It’s time consuming because, well, as an avid history fan I can easily find myself playing the role of Alice following the white rabbit down the proverbial hole and somehow find myself hours later reading about some random part of history which, while absolutely fascinating, has nothing to do with my work in progress or the purpose for which I first consulted the text.

It’s rewarding because I get to learn fascinating new parts of history that they don’t have time to teach about in school. Like how one of our local gold rush towns got its name and that the man it was named after moved away about 2 years later and never moved back. In fact, he didn’t even return for a visit for 18 years and he wound up running a hotel on the California coast 26 years later, and did you know there was a horse named after him and….. Yes, you caught me. None of that has anything to do with my current works in progress. This is a tidbit I picked up in one of those rabbit holes.

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Where was I? Oh, right….

Historical research can also be very frustrating. Not only because of those pesky rabbit holes, but because it can be rather difficult keeping track of everything you read and where you read it. Picture me scratching my head trying to remember which library, which section of that library, which book title, which chapter, and on which page I found that particular fact about Julian’s jail once housing the only public toilet months after I actually read about it. (In this case it wasn’t even a book, it was a website.)

In response, I’ve begun collecting pages and pages of copies of books and articles and websites in addition to an increasing number of books for my personal reference shelf. Now, I do have a particular system for keeping track of all of those items…. no really, I do…. okay so it’s not exactly perfected but…. that’s not what I want to talk about right now. Right now what I want to share with you is how I track the relevant information within those items.

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When I reference a note, I’m usually looking for something in particular, so if all I did was highlight everything interesting in yellow, I’d never be able to find anything. I have many different categories of notes including things like notes about food resources, people born/married/died, places built/destroyed/expanded, important events, etc.  So if I were instead to give every category of notes a different color, you can imagine that I would run out of highlighter colors rather quickly. Ask me how I know.

Then it hit me. This was a familiar problem.

If you are familiar with the method of inductive bible study, then you may be familiar with the concept of creating a unique symbol for each important word or recurring theme. These symbols are used to mark up the text with the idea being to slow your reading down and help you engage with the text as you extrapolate its meaning. I have been using this off and on for years in my personal study of the Bible.  However, I can’t stand the idea of actually marking up my Bible, so instead I print out sections at a time and work with that. It also allows me to create really wide margins which provide room for a little creative journaling while I’m at it.

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So what does this have to do with my historical research? Well, I’ve developed similar symbols for each of the categories I want to easily find in my notes. Now as I am reading, I just highlight in yellow all the stuff I think I might want to refer back to later and add the category symbol in the outer margins.  This way I’m not constantly searching for and switching out different colored highlighters, and when I want to find notes in a particular category, I just flip through and scan the edges of the pages. Oh, and I keep a key to my symbols at the front of any texts. If it’s a copy of a library book page, I’ll staple a blank page to the front and make my key there. That way if I forget what symbol I used for a particular category, I have a quick cheat sheet. I also keep a photograph on my cell phone showing all my most frequently used symbols so that I can be as consistent as possible from text to text.

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I still cringe when marking in a book and it’s not perfect, but it works for me.

Your Turn!

A lot of people do research for their work or school. What do you think of my technique? I’d love to hear if you have any other tips or techniques you use to do research!

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