I’m currently writing a book on the Lake District and thought it might be interesting to share some ideas as it progresses. One priority is to organise the material I’ve collected so here are a few thoughts that may be useful for nonfiction book research.
Types of research material
Nowadays, there is a wealth of information online beyond traditional sources such as books, maps, magazines and newspapers. The types depend on the topic but might include website pages, social media snippets, photographs, video clips and audio recordings.
I’m also a big fan of so-called grey literature such as the annual reports, whitepapers and special reports that many organisations make publicly available on their websites, and of the interpretation panels you often see at sites of historical or wildlife interest. Scribbled notes from visits and chats with local experts have always been around too, of course.
Another option is to use a digital recorder to record information on trips away, but I couldn’t get the voice recognition software to reliably convert speech to text. However, some people speak highly of this approach.
Options for organising research
Taken together, this might all amount to several thousand items so a key early decision is whether to use software to organize everything and there are some great packages out there. Well-known examples include Evernote and Microsoft’s OneNote, and many writers are fans of Scrivener too.
Although I’ve tried some of these in the past, nowadays I prefer to keep full control of how and where files are stored by using folders. However, I do make sure that everything is digitized first to avoid having to jump between printed pages and the screen; for example by typing up notes, putting sequences of images into PDF files, and scanning key pages from reports.
When documents contain information on many topics, I’ll either copy them individually into all relevant folders, or make notes on the relevant sections first.
Making sense of it all
The trick then is to sort everything into a logical order that matches the draft contents for the book so that files are ready to refer to when drafting the text.
However, before researching a section I’ll write a first draft from memory, focusing on the flow and wording of the text. It’s only when I’m happy with those aspects that I begin to flesh out the detail, which typically includes some more online checking, generating yet more notes to save.
If it turns out that there are hundreds of files on one topic and hardly any on another, that’s sometimes a sign that the structure of the book or chapter needs to be changed. Generally, though, I tend to use quite a fine level of detail, as shown in the hypothetical example to the left.
The ‘Key References’ folder or similar is where I keep the most useful files for quick reference in future.
Would this approach work for you?
So, if you are trying to research a nonfiction book, that’s an approach that works for me. However, if you have other ways that are better, including using software to help in the process, please go ahead!
This also omits what is perhaps the most enjoyable aspect of research, which is visiting the places referred to in the book, the photography and chatting to local experts to assemble the information in the first place.