01 August 2013

Research, Brainstorms, and Organization

I am a huge fan of knowledge, especially random historical facts. Did you know Lord Byron loved to swim, had a clubfoot, and preferred oranges over every other fruit? That info interested me way more than his magnum opus, Don Juan. If not for the cuteness of the English profs at my college, I do believe I would’ve been a history major.

Because I wanted to keep the time-related abilities of my characters from the Hourglass series as close to reality as I could, I did a lot of research. Learning new things releases Dopamine, the same chemical our brain produces when we reward ourselves with sleep, food, or … other enjoyable activities. The cause of research leads to an effect of good feelings. I’m all in on that one.

Writers always hear the advice “write what you know,” but we should write what we’re interested in.

Chase your interests down. Let’s say you have a base knowledge of Vikings because you studied them in world history class. Maybe the only thing you remember about them is that they discovered North America, and inhabited it, way before Columbus. That fact always fascinated you, and you still wonder about it. Chase that thread. Read articles online. Search for documentaries on Netflix/Hulu/You Tube. Look for used books at Goodwill or garage sales (some of my biggest research scores have happened this way). You never know what reading updated (or even outdated) information might lead you to discover.

Brainstorm with your findings. You want to know who else might have discovered North America prior to Columbus. Recent research indicates the Polynesians were here first. Think about that, write down your what ifs, and don’t hold back. The craziest questions can lead you to remarkably compelling answers. You have to follow the trail to get to the end, but sometimes the trail … veers. This is the time you get to wander.

Find a brainstorm buddy. Poor, poor Jodi Meadows. I HAVE TO talk plot ideas through, and Jodi is always willing to get on gchat or FaceTime and listen. She knits, I talk. She nods occasionally, and that’s really all I need, but quite frequently she throws out one idea that solidifies another, or asks a question that squashes ideas that are too crazy. I make notes during our Facetime convos, but should you choose to do this via Gchat, either save the transcripts for reference or copy and paste the pertinent parts into an email.

Once you’ve hunted and gathered lots of information, narrow your focus. You can research forever, but you shouldn’t. The story I’m working on now has been in process for over five years. You can turn research into rationalized procrastination. Don’t. I finally gave myself a “No More Research” deadline. Stop reading other people’s words and create your own. This doesn’t mean you should ignore information that really tugs at you, even if you don’t know why. Serendipity is half the joy of writing.

Organize your information AS YOU GO. There are a few ways I do this. I use gmail, and I have a folder for each project with the name of my working title. Some of those folders have subfolders, such as character names or settings. This helps when I’m out and about and struck with an idea. I email myself, and tag the subject line with what the idea pertains to so I can file it appropriately later. I used to have a bookmark folder on the web that served the same purpose, but I couldn’t add notes, it didn’t transfer if I wasn’t working on my computer, and eventually it just got confusing.

My most favorite discovery is tumblr. I have no idea at all how to use it for social networking, but I have a private tumblr where I store links, photos, and videos. I love it because you don’t have to write a description of exactly what links contain, but you can tag each post so you can pull similar ones up at the same time. (I love this idea so much I considered keeping the suggestion to myself. Bad writer.)

Don’t write off pencil and paper. I have a worldbuilding notebook for each project, as well as one for each character. Look for back to school closeout sales. You can find thin, spiralbound notebooks for pennies. I even try to give each character a color, so I can color coordinate when I make notes on index cards or highlight character arcs in word processing programs.

Now that my freak flag is free and flying, I’m going to wrap up.

After research and brainstorming, the next logical step involves outlining or summarizing, and that’s up to you to suss out. I’ve tried it all, and nothing works 100% for me yet. I do love Blake Snyder’s Beat Sheet, because it doesn’t require a lot of information and therefore doesn’t hem me in when I’m still trying to build worlds and plots.

I would also suggest Scrivener for lots of reasons, especially the way you can store and organize information, but you can find all kinds of evangelists who will do a better job explaining it than I will. I’ve also heard lovely things about Evernote, but I’ve yet to explore it.

What about you? How do you organize?

Myra McEntire is June's second Affiliate Blogger. To find out more about our guest author positions here at the League, click here.

Myra McEntire knows the words to every R&B hit of the last decade, but since she lives in Nashville, the country music capital of America, her lyrical talents go sadly unappreciated. She’s chosen, instead, to channel her “mad word skills” into creating stories.

She’s an avid Doctor Who fan and will argue passionately about which incarnation is the best.

by Myra McEntire

For seventeen-year-old Emerson Cole, life is about seeing what isn't there: swooning Southern Belles; soldiers long forgotten; a haunting jazz trio that vanishes in an instant. Plagued by phantoms since her parents' death, she just wants the apparitions to stop so she can be normal. She's tried everything, but the visions keep coming back.

So when her well-meaning brother brings in a consultant from a secretive organization called the Hourglass, Emerson's willing to try one last cure. But meeting Michael Weaver may not only change her future, it may also change her past.

Who is this dark, mysterious, sympathetic guy, barely older than Emerson herself, who seems to believe every crazy word she says? Why does an electric charge seem to run through the room whenever he's around? And why is he so insistent that he needs her help to prevent a death that never should've happened?


  1. I can't take a lot of time to organize because I write in a lot of genres and have a lot of sequels to get finished.
    I have a giant, hardback spiral notebook I keep as kind of a running brainstorming/organizing/info keeper. When I get close to the middle, I buy another one just like it. I use a marker and write on the cover which books' notes can be found inside. I do everything in it, including a master list of chapters, notes for characters, research I can't misplace, etc.
    I can thumb through this book pretty quickly and find what I'm looking for. It's kind of like a messy desk where I know where everything is, even if I can't see it.
    I recently left it behind at a writer's retreat...luckily I got it back so I didn't have to kill myself.
    And I agree. Scrivener is the bomb. I'm slowly getting into it as time permits.

  2. I love this. No I didn’t know that about the mind behind Don Juan. I love learning new things as well and I love that you did a lot of research to keep your characters as close to reality as you could. These were some really helpful hints. Thank you!

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