Multipublished award winning Christian historical author Sarah Sundin has agreed to do a series of posts on historical research. She will be here once a month for three months. I hope this post blesses you, and that you’ll look for the next two in September and October.
From Jumble to Joy:
How to Organize your Historical Research Material
by Sarah Sundin
Research for historical fiction can lead you to rich wells of information. But if you don’t have a system for organization, you can end up with a jumble of notes—and no idea how to find the information. That’s what happened to me when I started. Over the past decade, I’ve come up with a system that works for me, based on a bibliography, binders and computer folders, and documentation.
The foundation for research organization is the bibliography. Every book, website, video, interview, or correspondence should be entered in the bibliography and numbered. For example, here’s an entry for a book I own:
253: Monahan, Evelyn and Neidel-Greenlee, Rosemary. And If I Perish: Frontline US Army Nurses in World War II. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003. [own]. (Narrative history of nurses in MTO and ETO, lots on 93rd Evacuation Hospital.)
The basics—bibliography number, author, title, publisher, year, just like in school. Since this document is for my eyes only, I enter notes about whether I own the book or borrowed it, and what information is in it. Since one of my upcoming novels is partly set in the 93rd Evacuation Hospital, this tidbit of information was important to me.
For on-line sources, include the direct URL link so you can easily return. Also include the date of access for websites or on-line material.
Binders and Folders
The home base for my research material is a big fat binder for each project. My upcoming series, Wings of the Nightingale, follows World War II flight nurses in the Mediterranean. My binder is labeled “Nightingale Research.” Inside I have about thirty tabs with categories such as Army Nurse Corps, ANC Uniforms, Flight Nursing, C-47s, North Africa, and Sicily. There are often subheads. For example, under Sicily I have Gela, Agrigento, Palermo, and Termini Imerese, all settings in my book.
Under each tab, I file notes and pages printed from websites or photocopied from books. Binder pockets or photo pages hold newspaper clippings, museum brochures, photos, etc.
This basic organization also works on the computer. In programs such as Microsoft OneNote (comes with Office) or Scrivener, you can form notebooks and folders. You can copy directly from the web, type notes, draw figures and tables, and more. Some of this can also be done in a simple Word document, if you don’t feel too techy.
My computer files bear the same names as their corresponding binder tabs. My file for Sicily is titled “Nightingale Research—Sicily” with the same subheads as above.
You think you’ll always remember where you read that great tidbit, but you won’t. Years later, when your editor questions your research (mine does!), you’ll want to locate that information quickly.
I use both handwritten notes, which are easier for me when reading on-the-go, and notes on the computer. For a borrowed book, I take detailed notes, but even if I own the book, I still take notes to help me find the information.
For example, in my section on the 93rd Evacuation Hospital, I have handwritten notes like this:
253: And If I Perish (Bibliography number, title)
p. 196—pic of 93 EH nurses landing at Paestum, Italy
p. 296—3/29/44 air raid on 93rd. (I own this book, so I don’t need thorough notes).
When I wrote my chapter on the 3/29/44 air raid, a quick perusal of my notes took me straight to the section I needed.
For on-line material, I recommend printing pages, or copy and pasting into computer files. Websites have been known to disappear into the ether. Include the bibliographical information and URL link. For example, here are notes I copied from an on-line book and pasted into a file:
246: Garland, Albert & Smyth, Howard. US Army in World War II Mediterranean Theater of Operations: Sicily and the Surrender of Italy. Washington DC: Center of Military History, United States Army, 1963, accessed 6 May 2011. http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USA/USA-MTO-Sicily/index.html#index
p. 137—Naval Task Force 81 brought the 1st Division to the Gela area in the center of the Seventh Army zone. The eleven transports reached their proper stations at 0045, 10 July.
If you document carefully, your editor will love you. And you won’t hate yourself. With a good organizational system, you can turn that jumble of notes into easily accessed information—a true joy.
Sarah Sundin is the author of With Every Letter, the first book in the Wings of the Nightingale series from Revell, and also the Wings of Glory series (A Distant Melody, A Memory Between Us, and Blue Skies Tomorrow). In 2011, Sarah received the Writer of the Year Award at the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference. Sarah lives in northern California with her husband and three children.