As nonfiction authors, we often talk about “falling down the rabbit hole of research” to describe how engrossing and time consuming the research process can be.
For me research is less a rabbit hole and more a labyrinth. It’s easy to lose the road I’m on as I chase tangents that splinter off from the main trail.
One thing that makes the research process easier for me is keeping a research journal. Here’s how I use mine to tame the research tangents.
First, when I’m trying to locate specific articles, I keep track of databases I’ve searched. Is that article I needed in the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America database? On Newspapers.com? At Fultonhistory.com? Where have I already checked? Where do I still need to look? Sometimes I make a simple “to do list” and check things off.
I use this same technique when it comes to contacting experts. Have I contacted that expert yet? When I do, I check off their name, note the date I reached out to them and how (via email, for example).
Sometimes I keep records of what search terms I’ve used in databases. When I studied Lilian Todd for WOOD, WIRE, WINGS, I quickly realized Lilian Todd’s name was often misspelled, and she was frequently referred to as “Miss Todd” or even “E. L. Todd” in the news. Knowing this, I ran searches multiple times using different search combinations, and keeping track of what terms I’d tried.
As I read secondary and primary sources, I also jot down new items I need to look into, whether it’s Lilian Todd’s patents (requiring a separate search in the U.S. Patent Office database) or the Junior Aero Club Show at Madison Square Garden (necessitating another dive into the newspaper archives). Making note of a new research topic allows me to put a pin in it, so I can finish reading the chapter or article without getting distracted. Then I can get started on my new tangent.
What hints do you have for wrangling your research? What tips have you found helpful?