How I Research and Organize My Book Writing: a Follow-Up

How I research and organize my book writing

A few weeks ago, I received a request to post a couple of pictures of my research “process” using a Circa notebook.

Happy to comply. 

I subscribe to the Twyla Tharp school of creative organization — every project gets its own “box" within which lies everything to do with that book, from research to notes to manuscripts and edits.

Over the years, with the advent of online storage and editing, these boxes have been getting smaller and smaller. Now, instead of tubs full of paper stacked in my closets, I’m able to use an expandable file pocket, and I consolidate my physical notes into single notebooks, whenever possible. 

 
Expandable Pockets and Book Clariefontaine
 

 

But for the CC books, I need a lot more organization. Hence, the Circa. 

If you missed how we researched THE SIXTH DAY, you can find that here. 

Once I’ve gathered up all my research, I print it out and put it in the Circa, and this is what I transport to Catherine’s for us to draw upon as we build the story. Organization helps! I separate my research by topics, as you can see. The pages inside are highlighted, too.

Each book also gets a Clairefontaine spiral bound notebook, and I use that for notes, ideas, queries, and all other manner of thinking on paper. They’re priceless to me. I actually found a whole chapter of LIE TO ME in one of the notebooks that I almost forgot to add to the manuscript, so yes, I do write by hand at times. 

 
The Clairefontaine - Plan of Attack
 

I also mentioned The Database — here is one of the bookshelves I have, full to the brim with research material. 

 
6. The Research Database
 

It’s amazing really, to think of all of this, when our forebears managed to write masterpiece after masterpiece like this:

 
The way it used to be done...
 

I'd love to see your process and organization!

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How we did the research for THE SIXTH DAY

How we did the research for THE SIXTH DAY

Having a new book baby out in world is a mixed bag of emotions. It feels a bit like jumping off a cliff with no parachute: sheer excitement coupled with abject terror. Why? Well, because the book is no longer your own. It’s one thing to build a book. It’s something different to have strangers read it.

So let’s talk about building a book. THE SIXTH DAY hit shelves Tuesday, and the research that went into it was astounding. 

For me, writing an international thriller with historical components is sort of like making French onion soup out of apples — in other words, an uphill battle. Or magic. I like the magic analogy better, let’s go with that.

Even though I’m not doing it alone, this magic gets its essence from the minute details. Elizabeth George just did an interview in which she described the moment a piece of her latest book came together for her:

“Seeing the place is really helpful in developing the plot, because if I don’t go, there are things I simply won’t know,” she explains. “For example, for the new book I went to Ludlow, and when I visited the police station, it was closed. There was an intercom and video-camera setup at the building which connected people with the police and emergency services. That became a hugely important plot point in the book.”

For me, physical proximity is the secret behind good research. You can study everything, read all the books, read all the articles, but if you can actually go to the spot you’re writing about, plot points can appear out of the ether. I can give you oodles of moments this has happened to me, book after book. Heck, a trip to Scotland saved WHERE ALL THE DEAD LIE — I had the winter colors all wrong. Trees, grass, flowers, skies… How embarrassing would that have been?

I know travel isn’t always possible, so at the very least, a few hours spent on Google Earth will go a long way. You won’t get all five senses (and trust me, how someplace smells creates all kinds of interesting ideas), but you’ll at least see what people wear, what it looks like when it rains, etc.

And the facts you see in the novel are fractional compared to the work done on the back end. There’s a reason we call research an iceberg, after all. You only see the tip. I’ve literally spent days on certain topics in order to put one single fact into the manuscript. I like to joke I get a Ph.D. on every book, but it really is true. 

I have a somewhat organized way of researching my novels.

If I’m working on research online, as I’m going deep into a topic, any link that I touch that has any sort of relevance to the book immediately gets bookmarked. If I know it’s relevant, it goes into its own folder in Evernote. If it’s possibly relevant, it goes to Instapaper, and then gets shuttled into Evernote if I find anything worthwhile. I also sign up for newsletters, subscribe to online magazines, join Facebook groups. Anything that will allow me hands-on experience with the people who actually do the work or live in the world I’m researching. (Dark Web for hacking info, anyone? 😈)

Once the research is conducted, I usually print it out and put it in a huge Circa binder. That way, if the internet crashes, I have my research. And of course, let’s not forget the books — easy to work with there, just slap a Post-it note and write it up in my notebook. Same for movies and television shows related to the story. I have two massive bookshelves in my office that cover everything from the occult to FBI to falconry. I call it the database.

For THE SIXTH DAY, I have over 200 individual links in my Evernote. From hacking to falcons to the Voynich to hemophilia to LSD, they are a roadmap of memories to building a book. I love that record, too. It’s as evocative as a playlist for me. I can remember the exact moment I saw a certain story and what idea it triggered — and often, I make a note about that in my files, for posterity. 

Hopefully, I get it all right. But as huge as these novels are, sometimes I blow it. A fact gets reversed, or the source material is incorrect, or I just plain read and interpret wrong. Hopefully, those mistakes are minimal. Because ugh! Fingers crossed it’s all perfect in this one.

I hope you enjoy all the crazy research that went into THE SIXTH DAY. Catherine and I had a blast with it. 

Now, on to book 6! (It only has 130 links bookmarked so far…)

 

Writers, how do you do your research? And Readers, is there anything that drives you crazy on research-heavy books?  What do you love to see?

What I'm Into (January 2017)

Here's a quick roundup of the stuff that's turning my crank this month!

The Genius Deck

I haven’t been stuck, per se (ahem, she says, she who doesn’t believe in writer’s block), but I have been fighting with this new manuscript, and when I came across The Genius Deck, I fell, hard. The idea of lateral thinking to boost creativity isn’t new, but when you’re fighting something that shouldn’t be hard, it’s revelatory. I played around with it a bit this afternoon and ended up with 500 new words on the book. So it does work. 

 



My new MacBook Pro’s keyboard

I was gifted a new laptop for Christmas, and I have to say, the new MacBook keyboards are pretty freaking cool. The keys are bigger, and placed closer together. When I move back to my Air for a few things, I feel like my fingers are spread out all over the place. A huge improvement in my eyes. Plus — OMG, retina screen! And Emoji touchbar! It’s not really useful yet, but it is fun to play with. I can see how it will eventually be a very powerful tool.


Alyssa’s Healthy Oatmeal Bites

My husband and I are dropping soy from our diet entirely, which means a whole new set of hidden ingredients to be on the lookout for. Soy lethicin, the sludge leftover from soy production, is in EVERYTHING… So when I came across these healthy oatmeal cookie bites from Alyssa’s, I jumped for joy. There is simply nothing bad for you in them, and they are delicious. I love it when something addictive is good for you. 


Moroccan Mint tea

I’ve always been a fan of spearmint, and this Moroccan Mint is my favorite. Great to have an an afternoon pick me up, or for an upset stomach, it’s rich and flavorful, and have the best scent! Makes brilliant iced tea, too.

 


ReadKit - AKA Instapaper and Feedly in one place

When I was setting up the new MacBook, I had to decide what apps I wanted to download. I had heard the battery life wasn’t very good. Though I’ll tell you, I’ve been working nonstop since 11 A.M. today and I’m at 47% with 3+ hours remaining, so not too bad… that should be a full 10 hours, which is what they say, plus my wi-fi’s been on the whole time. It’s varied quite a bit since I got it, the battery really does depend on the actions, so I’m looking forward to the update with the promised fixes.

Anywho, I had to think through what I wanted to port over. ReadKit is a big part of my workflow. I use Instapaper for articles to read later, and Feedly for my RSS feeds, and I send research articles to Evernote from both places, as well as to Buffer, when I want to share with y’all. ReadKit lets me put both Instapaper and Feedly in a single interface, which is beautiful and easy to navigate. It’s only for the Mac—I still use the individual apps when I’m reading on my iPad—but I’ve been using it for years and love it. Highly recommended.


What are you into this month?

Prolific or Consistent?

1.17.17 - Prolific or Consistent?

*Warning: JT’s version of math ahead.
 

The other day, someone told me how prolific I was.

I countered that I am not prolific, I am consistent, and there’s a huge difference. 

I know in many ways, I could be called prolific. I’ve managed to average two full-length novels a year (and by full-length, I’m talking 100,000 words plus) since I began writing over a decade ago, and I’m writing #19 as we speak. I recognize some people don’t do that many books over the course of a career, so by it’s very nature, that number automatically equates to being prolific.

But I’d argue I’m not at all prolific. I have friends who started out the same time as I did who are 10, even 20 books ahead of me. Hell, Dean Wesley Smith wrote a million words of fiction last year, compared to my 217,000. A million words. That, my friends, is prolific.

What I am comfortable with is a label of consistent. Over the course of the past several years, I’ve been tracking my numbers. Here’s a quick and dirty snapshot.

You can easily see why I’ve got 18 books under my belt— over the course of eight years, I averaged 628 fiction words a day. That’s approximately 229,220 words a year: about two novels and a couple of shorts.

Some years were better than others, clearly. When I started tracking in 2009, I was aghast at how little fiction I wrote, and swore to make up for it. Bu contrast, in 2014 I almost hit the 300,000 mark, and I ran myself ragged doing it. 

But I still don’t feel I’ve hit my potential as far as consistent daily word counts. I do shoot for 1000 words a day, five days a week. If I were to hit that goal consistently, I’d be able to churn out nearly three books a year with ease.

Of course, that’s not how life, and art, work. Everything can be reduced to numbers on a spreadsheet, yes. But does that capture what’s really happening? I think we’d all love to be machines who could crank out the same stuff day after day, but life gets in the way. 

Loved ones pass away. Children need tending. Pets need cuddles. Day jobs are priorities for many of us. It’s the rare few who can transcend the mundane daily issues to truly become prolific, writing huge amounts of QUALITY words. 

Oh, I’d love to be among them, trust me. But I think I’ll probably stick with being consistent instead.

Just a thought for today. I’d love to hear what prolific authors you like to read. And how prolific is too prolific?

 

11.27.16 - Sunday Smatterings

Sunday Smatterings 11.27.16

Hello, gentle readers! Have you had a nice holiday? Eat lots of yummy things? I hope you have, and that you got to make some memories with the people you love, to celebrate traditions and make new ones. We had a low-key celebration here, followed by a shift at my lovely indie, Parnassus Books, on Small Business Saturday.

Do me a favor and show some love to your local indie, would you? There's nothing like walking into a bookstore, browsing a shelf and finding something new to devour. Lots of work goes into putting that book into your hands, and indie booksellers inject a big dose of love into the mix that you don't get from the click of a mouse.

That's my two cents, anyway.
 

Here's what happened on the Internets this week:


My friend Ariel Lawhon is one of the wisest people (and one of the most brilliant writers) I know. Her blog post this week is a must-read for anyoneregardless of age or profession. Simply wonderful advice.

Do you know where wine's from? We at The Wine Vixen didn't guess correctly... and we hadn't heard of the varietals that call the region home. See, chickens—learning lasts a lifetime!

Utterly captivating: "How Jack Reacher Was Built."

Quirk Books imagined a few Twitter rants from literary characters, and they are kind of spot on.

Y'all. Now's the time to sign up for Fresh Fiction's Limited-Edition Christmas box! They're chockfull of goodies every month, fellow bookworm. But there might be a special surprise from yours truly in the Christmas box... just sayin'.

The Oxford English Dictionary named its 2016 Word of the Year. Have you heard of it?

 


And closer to home:


Have you been pinching your pennies waiting for the FIELD OF GRAVES paperback? Your patience is about to be rewarded: it's finally coming out this Tuesday! Go here to snag your FIELD OF GRAVES paperback.

I had the best time with the ladies of XOXO After Dark, chatting about why we can't put down thrillers, road trip snacks, NO ONE KNOWS, and more. It doesn't get much more fun than this. Tune into our conversation while you run, while you laundry, while you're online shopping... whenever!

One of my favorite things to do is to peek behind the curtain, to see how other writers make the magic. In the spirit of the giving season, I've put all my tools on display, the things that make my business chug along. Whether you're a writer, a stay-at-home-mom, or a student looking for some productivity hacks, I've got you covered. My writing software, my research workflow, my favorite notebooks, pens, and pencils—I went full-nerd here. 🤓

 


That's it from me! Enjoy the post-Turkey lull, welcome December with open arms, buy a copy of FIELD OF GRAVES paperback for you and a friend, and we'll talk again soon!

xo,
J.T.