I’m Taryn Edwards, one of the librarians on staff at the San Francisco Mechanics’ Institute. I’ve worked there for 12 years and am currently working on a book about its history.
Mechanics’ Institute is the oldest library on the West Coast designed to serve the public. It’s also a cultural event center and the oldest continuously operating chess club in the United States. It’s located in downtown San Francisco by the Montgomery BART station and it was founded in 1854. It’s a membership organization with about 5000 members and about 1/3 of whom are writers.
I’d like to share with you my thoughts on how to research nonfiction.
Part I — How to get started on an historical research project
1. Identify What Your Project Really Is. Decide upon the aim of your project and what you want to know in order to tell that story. For example, will your project be a “cradle to grave” biography or are you focusing on a specific event like the 1906 Earthquake and Fire? I have found it helpful to write a few sentences about my project that covers the what, why and how. What are you writing? A biography? A book of essays? Why are you doing this? To tell the true story? To breathe new life into an old story? How will you accomplish this? Through a chronological account or a “nonfiction novel” like Truman Capote’s True Crime? This mission statement will evolve as your research progresses and your concept becomes more refined. It will help you keep on track an focused in your efforts and will serve as the basis for your book’s elevator pitch (the short, snappy description that you will use when talking to agents, editors, or complete strangers about your book).
2. Identify your audience. Who are you doing all this work for? Imagine who will pick up your book at a bookstore or library. Try to envision this person as clearly as possibly. You want this person to sit on your shoulder throughout your research and writing and serve as your muse and your censor. Stephen King calls this, in his memoir On Writing, the “Ideal Reader.” Remembering your ideal reader will help you with all stages of the writing process.
3. Set up Your Master File. There are a lot of methods for organizing research. Some people use index cards or tools like Evernote or Zotero. When I first started working on my research projects however, I had a hard time grasping how my research (the stuff on the notecards) tied into the hard facts of my subject’s life and how I would fold all of that into my eventual narrative. I also needed to have a big picture vision of my project that would show me the holes that I needed to fill with data. The method that I’ve discovered for keeping my research on track and the big picture in focus is to create a “Master File,” similar to what investigative journalists use when working on a case. A Master File is a chronology (of your person, event, or subject) with expository notes, and original and secondary source material footnoted. I have a Master File for each person or subject that I do significant research on and they all point to each other and to the bits of data, documents, and further reading I need to do. This Master File is a simple Word document that is organized by year, footnoted with my sources and where they reside in my files (digital or hard copy). Notes on further reading are denoted by a “comment”, and draft narrative is in colored text. When I am ready to organize my research and notes into scenes, it will just be a matter of making a copy of the file and cutting and pasting blocks of text.
4. Craft a Research Plan. Now you know what you want to do, who you’re doing it for, and you have a method for keeping your research in order, the next step is to draft a research plan. Your research plan is a living document, meaning it is subject to change—and change it will! First find out what has been done already and make a list of books and articles to read that will help you ground yourself in the topic and see where there’s room for you to expand, improve, or put your own spin on it. Next make a sequence of tasks and list when you will need to complete them. Estimate the costs and how long your project will take. If you need to travel or take significant time off from your day job schedule these.
For more on the Master File Concept: Story-Based Inquiry: a manual for investigative journalists edited by Mark Lee Hunter, 2009. Available for free download: www.storybasedinquiry.com and The Hidden Scenario: plotting and outlining investigative stories by Luuk Sengers and Mark Lee Hunter. The Centre for Investigative Journalism, 2012. Available for download with a small fee from www.storybasedinquiry.com or Amazon.