I love using my computer for my research. With a click of a mouse, ancient tomes and primary sources open before my eyes. And a working outline is a breeze. Copy. Paste. Search. Find. For one of my nonfiction projects my outline is over 200 pages long and still growing.
Yet when I wrote my middle grade nonfiction biography called Jane Austen for Kids, I felt the itch to close my laptop and track my research the old-fashioned way. Yup. Pen and paper. Practically dinosaur days and unheard of with today’s technology.
By that point in my career as a children’s author of more than 100 books with publishers big and small, however, I had learned to trust my gut instincts. And I’m glad I did. With unexpected research trips and two deadline extensions, this turned into the longest deadline I ever worked on—nearly two years. And my method of tracking my research made all the difference.
THE JOURNEY BEGINS
The journey started with my favorite pen and a simple student composition book. 100 sheets. Wide ruled. Fresh with the adrenalin from landing a book contract in just 15 days from idea to receiving an offer for my proposal, I sat down with several containers of scrapbooking supplies. Cardstock, scissors, quick-drying glue, and alphabet stickers in a variety of colors and fonts came in handy as I decorated the front and back covers of my composition book to reflect my project: a 40,000 biography on Jane Austen for middle grade and older readers.
Next came the inside of my research notebook. I decorated both the inside of the front and back covers and added inspirational sayings to cheer me in the days ahead.
Now I was ready to prepare my notebook for my upcoming research. I wrote a title page. I added a blank table of contents spread out over 4 blank spreads. The table of contents would become my key method of search and find. I planned to fill this in carefully to reflect content I’d write on the various pages of the notebook. I numbered the entire notebook (over several sittings) on the bottom right of every spread.
Knowing the hours I would be spending staring at my computer screen in the weeks and months ahead, I already appreciated the time I’d spent away from it. It gave my eyes and hands a refreshing break. Plus my back felt good taking a break from my computer chair.
GATHERING MY RESEARCH BOOKS
I took a trip to our local university library and returned with four totebags of research books. (Yes! Those are my research books in the photo above!) I opened my laptop to type each book’s info into my working bibliography. But I took an extra minute to type up a two-letter code for each book (typically the initials of the author’s name) or three letters if two matched. I added a page in my journal with the title of each research book with this special code. CLICK HERE to see my page.
Returning to my composition book, I opened its pages. Just holding my research notebook in my hands triggered a very organic sense of pleasure that simply wasn’t there with a computer. The texture of the cardstock, the visuals of the simple art I’d created to support my journey, the inspirational messages I read…I literally felt the creative side of my brain unlock and I was instantly in the zone—something that can be rare for us as writers who deal mostly with text and especially nonfiction writers who deal with straight-forward facts. Already I was reaping the benefit of my method for tracking research and I’d hardly begun!
Now that my bibliography was typed and each research book had its own code, I made a page in my research notebook for these codes. I listed my first research book and its title. As I started to read that book, I created new pages in my notebook for each new topic I wanted to track: Jane Austen’s Father. Jane’s Mother. Jane’s Sister. Jane’s Brothers. Steventon, where she was born.
On the page for each topic, I listed facts I wanted to track, along with the code letters of my research book and the page numbers where I found that fact. As I read more research books, I verified the facts by including other books’ codes and page numbers.
I kept most of the topics in chronological order of Jane’s life in my notebook since this was the order my eventual book would be. However, some topics were more broad such as my research on the American Revolution, the French Revolution, the colonization of India and other world events that took place during Jane’s lifetime. Along the right side of the first page in these sections I glued a one-inch wide strip of cardstock as handy tabs to flip quickly to these pages.
WORKING OR RELAXING?
I quickly discovered another benefit of tracking my research the old fashioned way. Instead of sitting at my computer hunched over my reference book while typing the facts into an outline on my computer, I was relaxing in my favorite spot. I was reading academic books on the couch with my feet up and both cats snuggled close—my favorite way to read a book. I jotted research notes in my notebook with my pen, enjoying the whole organic process immensely. Instead of “working” I felt like I was “relaxing” and the creative side of my brain responded. Ideas flowed forth on fresh new angles to present the facts and the project began to gel in unexpected and magical ways.
When I was ready to use my research to write new content for my manuscript, once again, I felt an itch to stay away from the computer. If the old-fashioned way to track my research had so many benefits, could writing my first draft for each section benefit from this method as well? I was willing to give it a try.
I got another blank composition book and collected my scrapbooking supplies. Labeling this book “Scene by Scene,” I included a table of contents as well. Section by section, I started the rough draft of my manuscript in the notebook, moving back to my laptop when I felt ready to type.
By now, my first composition book of research was getting full so I started a second one to continue on my journey. It was about this time my path took an unexpected turn. I decided to travel to England to walk in Jane’s footsteps and celebrate her legacy at a special graveside service held on the anniversary of her death. I discovered all of England was celebrating 200 years since Jane had passed. I wanted to join in the gala events and this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
So I did. And then I made my most daring decision of all. I opted to leave my laptop at home and experience everything Jane, armed only with my camera and a brand new blank composition book along with my favorite pen.
TRAVELING ON A RESEARCH TRIP
What a remarkable journey that was! I took along a little bag of scrapbooking supplies (including scissors and quick-drying glue I packed in my checked-in luggage). Each night I returned from my adventures and filled in the pages of my notebook, tracking each topic in my table of contents. During the day I carried my notebook everywhere. I jotted down quotes from museum docents and other fans of Jane. I doodled, cut up brochures and glued key parts into the pages of my notebook, documenting my thoughts and impressions each step of the way. At one point, with unexpected free time, I joined a host of picnic-goers on a magnificent lawn and sketched into my notebook one of the grand mansions that inspired Pemberley.
Returning home, this notebook became a treasure. Packed with research notes, it became much much more than a research notebook. Traveler’s diary. “You-were-there” adventure. Time capsule. Keeping that notebook opened depths of my writing psyche that I’d rarely experienced before.
In the end after nearly two years working on this deadline, I filled in seven blank composition notebooks. Typing a title for each one, I printed these out and taped them to their spines so I can quickly see which was which. More than research notebooks, however, these became keys to open gates in my life as a writer.
Have you ever tracked your research using pen and paper? Share with us about your experience in the comments below!
-Written by Nancy I. Sanders. Nancy is a bestselling and award-winning children’s author of more than 100 books. She’s an instructor at the Serious Writer Academy. To say goodbye to writer’s block and be inspired to write in the zone, sign up for her downloadable video class Getting in the Writer’s Zone by following the links at http://nancyisanders.com/workshopzone/ Click on Nancy’s name at the top of this article to learn more about her and her writing.