Tag: Research

How to Build a Research Database for a Non-Fiction Book

Library Index Cards Drawer to illustrate a research database. The State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Photo by Mihaela Limberea
The State Library of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia. Of course I visit libraries while on vacation! You don’t?

As mentioned in my earlier post, I’ve started building the research database for my non-fiction book. 

I had looked around on the world wide web earlier and found several good articles on how to do that, all more or less complicated. I’m a gal of simple tastes, so I was looking for something not too complicated or relying too much on technology. I wanted a simple solution, sustainable in the long run. I’m planning on writing more books.

Cal Newport had a great article on building a research database, and I followed that process and kept it simple with an Excel file. Newport’s article focuses on writing an academic paper, but I found it useful for a non-fiction book too.

There are more advanced ways, but I feel an Excel file meets my needs. I don’t want to over-complicate things. Apps come and go; Excel remains. Simplicity is the essence of happiness, as Cedric Bledsoe said.

The only thing that I’ve added is an extra column for Comments. Everyone with whom I worked on a project at Microsoft would recognize it. No project plan of mine would ever miss this column, ha, ha! I simply find it so useful for recording bits of information that you may need, for instance, a link to a relevant site. Once a process improver, always the process improver, I guess.

Here’s the file if you’re interested. Feel free to download it, and let me know if you have any feedback or questions.

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How to Do Research for a Non-Fiction Book

Stack of old books.
Photo by Chris Lawton on Unsplash

When we moved from Switzerland to Sweden in late 2019 I decided to do a Kondo review of our possessions. I didn’t want to bring old stuff into our new home and new life in Sweden. It was a signal of new beginnings, with a clean slate.

Old stuff in the huge garage or the bomb shelter … OK, that sounds crazy. Let me explain. Yes, we had a bomb shelter room, with a heavy, thick steel door like a bank vault, complete with six field beds, a chemical toilet, and an air filtering system. It’s a requirement when building a house in Switzerland. If it made me feel safer? I don’t know, but it was perfect for additional storage with 25 square meters.

This brings me back to the move. The extra storage area meant that even more stuff found its’ way there. Some things were easier to throw out than others. Books and my archive papers were hard. 

I had the idea of my non-fiction book for a few years and had started collecting material, even though I wasn’t sure how I could write it when I was working more than full-time and was utterly exhausted during the weekends. But I kept at it because I knew the day would come.

So here I was with boxes of papers, ready to start my new life as a writer, at last. I couldn’t leave all that behind now, could I? What I did, in the end, was a quick scanning, removing duplicates or outdated papers. There were still too many boxes, but I did what I could.

Now to the “how” part. 

How to Do Research for a Non-Fiction Book

1) Preparation

To lose a passport was the least of one’s worries: to lose a notebook was a catastrophe,” travel writer Bruce Chatwin said. All research starts with a notebook. A kernel of an idea, an overheard conversation, something the neighbor said, a book I’ve read. I write it all down in my little Moleskine notebook that I always carry with me. Nowadays I use the iPhone’s Notes app as well.

As my intentions became clearer, I wrote a few points that would later go into the book outline. Nothing detailed yet, just high level, to provide directions.

Once I had a pretty good idea about what kind of book I wanted to write, I bought a few folders in clear pretty pastel colors and organized the papers I already had. This helped me better understand where I was going with the book.

2) Online Research

Then on to do some online research, starting with Google Scholar, and expanding from there. I did a quick check on what others have written on the subject, and their sources, as they’ve already done their research.

I follow a few writers in my areas of interest; many of the experts in their field would have a homepage or a blog, and often, they would list recommended books. A pre-validated list, that’s gold.

3) The Library 

Libraries are magical. Imagine all that knowledge, free for anyone to grab! Non-fiction books are organized by topics, so this step is relatively easy. I just went to the relevant shelves and browsed. I’m pretty good at scanning books quickly, and my list grew pretty fast.

The advantage of “real” books is that you can browse through whole books fairly quickly; with e-books, it’s much harder.

4) Analyze Sources

I like to think I’m pretty good at evaluating sources, but a formal test is always good. I use CRAAP (an acronym for Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy, and Purpose). I also prioritize primary sources (first-person accounts) before secondary sources whenever possible.

5) Organize the Material

Now, the tricky part is keeping track of everything you’ve found. Enter the research database. I’ll write a separate post on this.

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