How I organize my non-fiction research


A non-fiction book project generates a colossal volume of information. Keeping it organized is crucial. Here’s a look at how I do it, and an overview of how I’m hoping to use Evernote to do it digitally.

Today, I’m building on yesterday’s post lauding the utility of Evernote. The drawing posted below shows how I’m using Evernote notebooks to organize the various stories I’m researching in the hopes of expanding each one into a book proposal.

The line of boxes down the left side are the different Evernote notebooks I’ve established to hold relevant information.

Proj # 1, 2, and 3 are my three story ideas, and each one set up as a notebook. And since Evernote allows you to nest notebooks inside of other notebooks, in each of the three, I’ve nested the six notebooks I’ve shown growing out of Proj #2. I store the relevant “notes” inside of each one of those six sub-notebooks.

(And since Evernote allows us to attach “tags” to each note, I’m using the tag feature to identify source notes relevant to each story scene. You can attach any number of different tags to a note, which is great if a certain factoid pertains to more than one scene.)

In the notebook “Organizational Stuff”, I’ve created notes for each of the following: bibliography, characters, people to thank, questions, quotes, timelines, and vocabulary.

For everybody who has asked me how I remembered who helped me during the eight years it took to write China’s Wings, here is your answer — I kept a list of names in a Word file. And even then I made one crucial mistake, forgetting to add Tom Lambert and Theresa Ho. An omission that haunts me.)

“Characters” is a list of the names I encounter in my reading. Not all of whom will make it into the final book — indeed, most of them won’t — but my comprehensive list of names helps me recognize relationships between people in the milieu about which I’m writing.

“Questions” are questions I need to answer. “What is an aileron horn?”  for example. “What changed in 1944/1945 that made  Bond want to get Pan Am’s investment out of China?” for another.

“Quotes” holds quotes from other writers or speakers relevant to the topic that I find amusing, helpful, or are things I might want to use as front pieces for chapters or parts of the book.

“Timeline” is a list, in order, of what happened when. Which I find key to answering the absolutely crucial and central question of narrative non-fiction: “What happened?”

“Vocabulary” is where I store definitions and descriptions pertinent to each story’s milieu.

This builds on the Practicing History and Some of My Best Friends posts I made last January, and on June’s How the Sausage Got Made, which describe and illustrate the decidedly low-tech organizational technique I used for China’s Wings.  Indeed, I’m thinking Evernote’s notebooks and notes are going to largely replace the 4×6 cards I used for China’s Wings.

This is what the final pile of China’s Wings research looked like. I’m thinking Evernote might replace a significant portion of that — and make it a hell of a lot more portable, which means that for my next project I’ll be less trapped in my office than I was while writing China’s Wings.

If you have questions, suggestions, or organizational systems of your own you’d like to share, please post comments.

My system is far from perfect, I’m always trying to learn and improve how I manage my information, and I’d greatly appreciate thoughts, ideas, and suggestions.

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