Friday, April 6, 2012

Tips on Organizing Your Research

Last night, I had a marvelous dream. I went back in time five years and smacked 21-year-old me upside the head.

Bewildered, young-me rubbed her head and said, “Ow! What was that for?”

I answered, “Will you please organize your research? I’m trying to sift through all your crap, and it’s killing me!”

Since I did my research for Sacred Fire so long ago, I started rereading and fact checking to make sure I’m not getting sloppy. Problem is, I can’t reread material I didn’t save, or fact check when I don’t know where on earth I got those facts.

For example, I wrote in my book that there was a grate surrounding the temple of Vesta. That doesn’t make sense. There was a wall around the temple of Vesta. Why would you put a grate around a wall? All the sources I have say nothing about a grate, but I know I didn’t pull that fact out of thin air... I even have a picture of it!

The only place it could be is in a book at the BYU library. Since that’s in Utah and I’m in Mississippi, that doesn’t help me.

I wrote an article awhile back on how to organize your research before starting your book. I said to own all your research books, save every webpage you visit in its entirety even if you don’t think you’ll use it again, print and highlight the important stuff, and organize it all in binders and in folders on your computer. If I had done that, I would have that fact about the mysterious temple grate either on my desk or on my desktop.

Now I’m thinking about how to organize research while in the process of writing and revising. Once you have all that information, what do you do with it?


I had a crazy idea; what if I treated this book like it was a school paper? Every time I use a fact or quote, I could put a little number behind it and include the reference at the bottom of the page. (If you use Microsoft Word, click on References > Insert Footnote.)

That way, when one of my characters say “Fire is the highest and ethereal nature of heaven,” I don’t have to flip through my notes or run a Google search to find who said that quote. I could just scroll down and see that it was Ovid from Metamorphosis.

It would be a pain to delete it all for the final draft, but not as much of a pain as what I’m doing now.


I’ve tried all kind of timelines (all of them Word documents), and they all sucked. If I had it to do over again, I’d construct a visual, all-encompassing timeline that I’d tape to my wall. The historical events and their dates would be written directly on the paper, and all the fictional events would be on movable tabs. That way, I can reorganize scenes without getting the events confused. Then I’d have smaller movable tabs that indicate each character’s age during milestones in the book.
I can see it in my head, and it is beautiful.

Review Everything

I’m a big believer in plotting the book only after your research is done so your novel molds to the truth, instead of truth molding to the novel. The only problem is you don’t always know where your book will take you. That means you can’t always know what you need to research until you’re waist-deep in the novel.

For instance, I’m rereading Livvy’s account of the Second Punic War, and I’m getting so much more out of it than when I read it five years ago. I’m catching stuff I didn’t know was important back then, and I’ve even added and rewritten scenes because of it.

Now I’m a believer in making a research sandwich: doing my research before writing, then doing more and reviewing it later.

I can’t wait to apply all these ideas when I start my next book after finishing Sacred Fire (which will be never, grrrr).

UPDATE: I finally found the information I was looking for about the grate (two months after this was posted). Ovid, Fasti, VI, 261 as a primary source and Recent excavations in the Roman Forum by E. Burton-Brow as a secondary source.


  1. There could have been a wall AND a grate around the temple, don't you think? Walls tend to collect rain water and there could be a drainage channel cut into the ground to convey water away from the temple, with a grate covering it. Just a thought.

  2. Hmm... maybe... Historians were thorough enough in their descriptions of the temple that I think they would have said if there was a drainage channel, but who knows? There was definitely a grate AND a wall, but I can't think of any other reasons why.

  3. I don't research, I don't need to. Which saddens me a little because when I was a baby writer I imagined days spent in libraries with old books spread around me.

  4. OMG! I love your timeline idea, Teralyn. I may just steal and use that even though I don't write historical. I think my next few novels are going to be complicated (plus it sounds kind of fun).

    Also, I think Google has some feature where you can search using a picture instead of words. Maybe you should try that to find the source of the grate information.

  5. Excellent timeline idea! I'm not writing historical fiction either, but a visual line of all my scenes would help with the final piecing together of my ideas. I am also investing in notebook tabs (to separate character sketches) and paper clips to keep relevant odds and ends writing and reasearch with their appropriate characters and written scenes.


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