Saturday, February 21, 2015

Organizing Your Research Books

Writers often hear, “Write what you know.”  That sounds plausible.   I’ve lived in the Chicago area my entire life.  I know the seasons, the slang, the popular foods and the stops on the elevated train.  I know my characters can order a deep dish pizza with a locally brewed beer.  I know they wouldn’t be walking on the beach (yes, there is a large body of water along Chicago’s east side) in February unless they were dressed in snow boots and parkas instead of shorts and sandals. 

And yet, when I started writing, I chose London as my setting.  Not modern London, but rather, Victorian London.  What did I know about Victorian London?   Absolutely nothing!  Except what I’d read in history books and other historical romance novels. 

That didn’t deter me, though.  As it wouldn’t any writer who felt passionate about a character or setting.  It just meant that I would have to do some research.  Well, not some.  A lot of research.  That didn’t deter me, either.  And I’m not alone.  Many authors write about places they’ve never visited.  And like me, many authors love the research aspect to writing a novel. 

Research wasn’t as easy when I began writing as it is now.  The internet was in its infancy.  I did most of my research at the library – fingering through catalog card files, thumbing through books, and dropping dimes into the copy machine when I wanted a photo or large amount of text.   I also bought whatever books I could find on the topic, especially on sale through libraries or catalogs. 

With all this research came another problem – how to keep track of this information when I needed to access it again.  Back then, technology meant a spreadsheet.  I didn’t even know how to use one, so I kept track of my books and resources on plain sheets of paper, numbering the sources, and writing notes to myself on what the source was and where I’d found it.  It wasn’t the easiest to use, especially when I was looking for something specific.  It meant scanning all those pages until I came across the entry I wanted. 

Technology has made life so much easier.  I know how to use spreadsheets now.  And the internet and bookmarks have made tracking a breeze.  But I still have my extensive library of research books, as do other authors.  It’s the nature of the business.   If we aren’t collecting research books, we’re collecting novels or inspirational works. 

So what happens when you need one of those books?  Could you find it on your shelf?  Would you remember what you owned if you were at the store and saw it on the shelf?  That’s where today’s software comes in. 

With programs like Collectorz and All My Books, it’s all automated now.  Just scan or type in the bar code, and the book’s information automatically populates the fields.  You’ll even get a photo of the book’s cover.  You can then search files by genre, plot, publisher, etc. 

Some of these programs are free downloads, others have a nominal cost.  And you have to take the time to enter all your books.  But when you consider the convenience, it’s well worth it.  Start by scanning anything new that you bring home, then slowly add the rest of your titles.  Do a shelf a day, or maybe one a week, depending on your available time.  Eventually, your entire library will be catalogued. 

What is your favorite book cataloguing system?    

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