It is always interesting to hear how other writers work. This is a very good post by Tracy Chevalier on her note-taking process. A couple of points jumped out at me.
Whenever I’m writing a novel and arrive at a point where I’m not sure about a detail and have to check it in the research notebook, I inwardly groan. It is so exhausting reading through the notes, and often takes hours of sifting to find what I’m looking for. link
Lloyd Shepherd, who is tweeting snippets of his upcoming book and related bits of research, recently told me that he relies upon Evernote and Dropbox for research notes. Evernote is an excellent digital notetaking app. Dropbox is more of a document storage and sharing app. I imagine Lloyd photographs library documents (things you probably can’t find online), adds his own typed notes and files them within Evernote in such a way that they are easy to find later on. It’s far harder to file stuff efficiently in a series of notebooks. However, Chevalier adds that the act of writing notes into a notebook is part of the process,
Writing it down is a process that makes information concrete so I can absorb it. And I have to write it with pen and paper; a keyboard and screen won’t do. link
The historical fiction that Chevalier and Lloyd write and the non-fiction I write are two very different beasts. For field research, I am completely reliant upon a combination of physical notebooks, iPhone notes app, voice recorder app and the 1000’s of photographs I take. However, when it comes to background research, everything I find and want to remember is organised using tags in Pinboard. This particular combination of physical and digital is how my process seems to have evolved. I’m mostly happy with it. It works for me.
The single most frustrating part of writing my Korea book was having to repeatedly sift through a mountain of Korean language business cards, receipts and related ephemera to find the often tiny piece of information I needed.
I imagine the process was similar for Chevalier; going through the same pages again and again, looking for that tiny snippet she knew was in there somewhere, but where? Such a waste of time. Or is it?
Chevalier emphasises the physically of taking notes as being important to the writing process. I sometimes wonder whether this waste of time searching for stuff is also somehow a necessary part of the process in some odd way.
If I followed Lloyd and digitised the entire research process, I’m sure I’d have an easier time of it. For example, if I had scanned and filed every scrap of paper from Korea into Evernote, I would have saved myself hours, days even. But I think I might have also lost something I get while shuffling bits of paper. I’m just not sure how to define that something. The possibility of finding something forgotten among papers is part of it, a degree of serendipity, however I suspect it’s something entirely different. It’s probably related to the different ways brain chemicals react while rifling through paper as opposed to staring at pixels.
I know I couldn’t follow the wholly screen-based route as I wouldn’t have a box with my book, and everything to do with it, to close at the end of writing. It is a very final act to close that box. When it comes to process, I’m not sure writers can change that much. Sure, we can improve, use a better word processor, better computer, different pen etc. but I think process becomes rooted. It’s this great big, peculiar, quasi-superstitious thing that is an important chunk of the writing. A frustrating chunk which many of us think we might be doing wrong in some way or another. Which is why writers the world over almost always want to know how the hell other writers do it.