Tuesday, December 15, 2009

"OH WOW!" Notes

I am starting to do research for a new, big non-fiction book I hope to write. I already have stacks of books and internet resources, though I have more sources to gather, many paths to go down. I love doing research! But there is that moment, right at the beginning, when I get lost and overwhelmed. Everything is so interesting. There is so much to learn. How the heck can I take notes? It happened just yesterday. I was reading an autobiography and panicking. Everything I read I thought, should I write that down? And the answer kept seeming to be yes. I should write everything down. Birth date. Color of father's hair. Mother's maiden name. But if I write down everything, it will take me forty years to finish this book. At least.

I tried to stay calm, and just read. I told myself I could always come back and write down the facts that I will need. (And I know I won't forget that her father's hair was red.) So that's what I did. I made a cup of tea, took the book to the couch in my office, and read. I had my notebook with me just in case I couldn't resist writing something down. And then a few pages in something I read hit me in the solar plexus and I said, aloud, "OH WOW!" And then I remembered : I have a system. I do! I have a system! Thank goodness.

Seriously, I knew I had system. It's just been a little while. I've developed this system over the years, and it works very well for me. It's very simple: Every time I say "oh wow" I take a note. And I call these notes, yes, my "Oh Wow Notes." Here's an example of a page from notes I was taking while researching Celebrate Halloween.

I, of course, don't end up putting all of my "oh wows" into a book, especially not those from the beginning of my research. But as I take notes, I know more what I'm looking for and so the "oh wows" come less frequently. But I know that if something makes me say "Oh wow," it is most likely to end up in a book. And it is definitely worth writing down.

When I talk in schools, I tell teachers and children this system. It seems to work for them, too. I modify it a little by saying that you should write down the facts you know you'll need: birth and death dates for people, when important things happened, what those things were, etc. But that the details that will make your research paper (or your book) really sing are the ones you first reacted to that made you say "Oh wow!"

I'm sure everyone who writes for I.N.K., and many of you who read I.N.K. have little tricks that make note-taking easier (and even fun). Please share those here so we can all learn from each other.

Now this is not my whole system of taking notes. This is just a crucial part of it. In my next few posts on I.N.K. I will share more of my system. As soon as I remember it.


Susan Kuklin said...

Thanks, Deborah, for a WOW of a blog today!

For writers, process is often more interesting than the finished product. It is where we discover and define truths - all those delicious facts and details that turn a subject into a book. And when we find a new, delicious idea, fact, or truth – Oh WOW! It feels sooooo good!

When I do interviews, I’m listening for that eureka moment [“Wow’ belongs to you so I’ll take “eureka.”] Once a eureka pops up, the rest of the information often falls in place. Sparks fly! And both the interviewee and I know it. I live for those moments.

Can’t wait to read more about your process. What are our other writers’ WOW/eureka moments?

Susan E. Goodman said...

I've certainly experienced what Susan K. has described in her comment--sometimes it's like I hear those words from an interviewee with quotation marks around them! In fact, just happened to me two days ago when I was talking to a former POW from the Vietnam war for a new project.

But when I read Deborah's post, I thought about the fact that I often actually mold my book around my WOWs. Although I know as a writer that I have to tell a complete story with enough background etc., etc., there are certain things I discover that I find so amazing that I tailor much of the story around them. I figure that if it's amazing to me...

BTW, to add to our nomenclature--I think of it as "the gee whiz factor."

Stephen Aitken said...

You are echoed many of my feelings of being overwhelmed in the early stages of research on a NF title. I also have learned to hold my note-taking OH WOWS! in check so that I can actually grok the subject matter as a whole before trying to write down the details.
Still, the WOWs are an important moment to capture and convey to young readers. It is what keeps our writing vital and alive.
Thanks for a great post.