I thought I had mended my ways. I thought I had discipline. The evidence is clear: I don’t put all my digital research materials into one folder on my desktop computer anymore. I actually have sub-folders! All neatly labelled, from Acknowledgements (names of archives and museum staff) to Slavic Kinship Terms to World War I. This means I’m doing it correctly now. Please hold your applause.
My phone, however, will tell you that I am a liar. It has 597 voice memos on it (fact, not hyperbole). All notes to the two books of adult fiction I’m working on. All untitled. Not even labelled by book. That can’t be correct at all.
Research is like a long-term romantic relationship. Some days, it’s “I love you! This is exactly what I needed! We’re perfect together!” The next day, I find myself muttering under my breath, wondering why I ever committed to this, and eyeing the door.
The secret to remaining sane when using research in writing is to not let it overwhelm you. Writers, repeat after me: “I control it, it doesn’t control me.” Organizing your research is central to not being overwhelmed – but it also takes time to find a method that works for you.
When I started writing my first book (the one I shelved in the early '00s), I tried using a bulletin board and index cards. That’s what writers do, right? I’m visual, so it seemed like a good idea. That was before I discovered that I’m also a wee bit sensitive to sensory stimuli. All those cards were too much. They just became background wallpaper so I could block all the noise out.
Then I tried binders, because Margaret Atwood said in an interview that it’s her preferred method of storing notes and research toward a book. That also didn’t work, mostly because I subscribed to hard copy magazines and newspapers at the time, and I was always clipping out bits of things that I couldn’t punch and insert cleanly. Those stern-looking binders also hid everything from sight. Eventually, I took everything out of the binders and put them into accordion files instead. “They’re open at the top,” I thought. “I’ll be able to see them but they won’t be too much.”
The problem with accordion files is that there’s not enough room in the pockets for some areas of research (not even in the expanding legal-size ones). And some accordion files are open at the bottom of each pocket! A complete travesty. I thought I was a genius when I tried those see-through plastic portfolios, the ones with the flip top and the wraparound string closure. These had better functionality – there was room for a lot and it has a bottom – but all that plastic is incredibly bad for the natural world. At this point, I felt less like a writer and more like a stalker at my local Staples.
So I gave up on doing research “correctly.” I used bankers boxes to store the research papers I printed out for the non-fiction book I published in 2019. It kept them out of sight and out of mind until I needed them. I solved the hidden-so-I-forgot problem and the too-stimulating-so-now-wallpaper problem problem by working chapter by chapter, with one chapter of research piled on my desk at a time. That sounds neat, doesn’t it?
But I’m lying again. At the end of every chapter, I ended up with tonnes of leftovers and no idea where they might fit. I wasn’t sure if that meant I should add them in, stop and chuck, or save them for another project. In the end, I did all three, depending on the research and the chapter. This led me to a new place in my writing. Everyone says writers should set a deadline to stop researching, but I’ve come to believe that a book is never really done. I added new stuff in the second edit (and the fifth) for the 2019 book, much to the delight of my long-suffering editors at ECW Press. Stuff that didn’t fit but didn’t scream “recycle me” found a better home in the book that came out this year.
I have some big, clear plastic bins on my work table now. Nice ones from IKEA that don’t hurt my eyes to look at. I see everything that’s inside, but only the first layer until I dig deeper. The bins hold all the scrawled notes that I write on the back of my grocery lists and bits of reused printer paper. It even holds the notebook that I’m supposed to use to write those same notes. The bins do not hold my bookmarked websites, YouTube video URLs, or cellphone voice memos. I’ve solved most of the problem, but not all of it.
Your CanLit News
Subscribe to Open Book’s newsletter to get local book events, literary content, writing tips, and more in your inbox
There’s no “right” way to research a book. Research is messy – and that mess gets books written in all their necessary complexity.
Now if I could only stick to one notebook per book, and not write notes for multiple books inside one notebook. #ResearchGoals
The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book.
Suzanne Methot is the author of Legacy: Trauma, Story, and Indigenous Healing. She has worked in adult literacy and skills-training, as a museum educator, and as a teacher, creating a classroom program for Indigenous students experiencing intergenerational trauma. Born in Vancouver and raised in Peace River, Alberta, Suzanne is Nehiyaw of mixed Indigenous and European heritage. She lives on Gabriola Island, B.C., on the unceded territory of the Snuneymuxw Nation.