Writing Historical Fiction Part 6

Part 6. Take notes, then more notes, then… 

After I’ve read as much about my subject as my brain can handle, I’ll begin to form ideas about how I can incorporate the history into the story I want to tell. Then I can begin looking for the specific information I need to help me connect the dots. That’s when I begin to take notes.

I still prefer to handwrite my notes into a spiral notebook. In Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg recommends getting notebooks with cartoon characters or crazy designs on the cover because it prevents you from taking yourself too seriously while you’re working. Writing out notes the old-fashioned way, with pen and paper, can seem like a tedious process to some, but, like Goldberg, I believe there’s a hand-to-heart connection in writing things out longhand.  I absorb the information better that way, and then I can do a better job relating the information to others. When I try to take the short cut and print up the articles from the Internet or make photocopies at the library, I don’t read the information as closely as I do when I handwrite my notes. I skim, find only what I think I need, and ignore the rest. When I handwrite my notes I’m forced to slow down, read carefully, and decide what is important enough to write down. Because the process can be slow I have time to think while I’m working. Sometimes being forced to slow down and think can be a good thing, especially when crafting a story.

Some writers prefer to type their notes or write them out on index cards. One writer friend of mine posts his research notecards on a bulletin board by his desk. His board is divided into sections, one section for each chapter in his book, and he pins his notecards into the chapter where he thinks the information will go. Some writers like to highlight the information they need, using a different color for each category of information. That’s fine.

Part of becoming comfortable with the research process is figuring out what works best for you. The notes, in whatever form you write them, do come in handy after the library books have been returned and you need that certain date while you’re working.  And don’t forget to write down the bibliographical information for each source you use. You may want to go back to those sources again.

3 thoughts on “Writing Historical Fiction Part 6

  1. I’m fortunate in having a pretty good memory for detail–although it’s not as good as it was when I was younger. I did find myself looking up the same things over and over as I was writing the last book . . . not so much because I’d forgotten it but because my training in textbooks causes me to want to see information in the source. I’m sure whatever method I use will get adapted as I go along.

  2. I think highlighting and flagging are a great idea. I love the neon colored strips made by Post-It notes, and those are perfect for research. I think the reason handwriting works for me is because I actually remember what I’m writing when I handwrite the notes, so the information is more easily accessible to me that way. You’re right–it does take a lot of patience. I think the trick is for writers to find what works for them.

  3. Funny, I just posted about researching techniques today. I don’t think I have the patience for handwriting notes. I do type them sometimes. I’m currently trying a highlight and flag method.

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