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~ Writing a Biography ~
A Blog About Writing Biography and Imagining a Life


Call me a hopeless nerd, but for sheer mental excitement, I've never found anything better than discovering something new about my characters or finding a clue to their story. To me, that's what archival research is all about.

In my first and second posts on organizing research, I discuss using MS Word to set up a chronologically-based folder system to hold research files and documents, plus relevant shortcut or alias icons. (For the geeks among you, I also survey some of the amazing electronic organizing software for serious nonfiction writers that's currently out there.)

The primary research files inside these folders are where I enter and store the notes I make when working in the archives on Sara and Erskine, an American Romance, a book that uses (among other things) thousands of letters to reconstruct this long love story of a Baptist minister's wife and a philosophical anarchist.

In this post, a letter from Erskine to Sara illustrates how I set up my online notes about the documents in which much of their story unfolds, while using the process to think about how it unfolded and of coming to understand it more deeply.


My primary research entries are usually in two parts: a headnote and a main section. (Sometimes the item isn't long enough to require a main section, in which case it just gets a headnote.)

1. HEADNOTES. As soon as I begin examining a primary document or an item in an archive—in the illustration, it's an October, 1911 letter in the Charles Erskine Scott Wood Collection at the Huntington Library in San Marino, California—I start a headnote. I write down the basics at once: the author, who the recipient was (if it's a letter), the date and the location where it was composed, and the box and folder it's housed in.

    To make searching easier, I always tag entries, using the library or archive's own cataloging system for the tag. I put the tag just above the headnote, where it's easy to see when I scroll through the document. Hence in the tag for the letter above reads "WD 244/15," meaning "Wood Collection, Box 244, Folder 15."

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2. MAIN ENTRIES. The second, and usually longer, part of the entry consists of whatever I think is important enough to copy by hand, either at the archive or when I get home and go through photocopies or listen to taped notes.

    Being a fast typist, I actually prefer to hand-type entries while I'm still in the archive rather than photograph, photocopy, or tape them. Copying by hand makes reading other people's letters more immediate ("Look at that: there's Erskine, right in front of me, telling Sara what he thinks of Clarence Darrow's courtroom tactics!"), and in addition forces me to pay closer attention to details that I might otherwise overlook.

    Besides, it's fun. I'm sure every biographer working directly with original materials has had the thrilling experience of suddenly understanding something that wasn't understandable before, or of clearing up some mystery. Those moments add to the wealth of information I have about my protagonists and about the lives and characters of the people around them, and become part of my understanding of the psychological story that emerges from the documents.

    Sometimes the pieces of a puzzle start falling together too fast, and I end up typing my observations right into the text, bracketing them for later transfer to a "Notes and Comments" section at the end of the main entry.

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3. COMPLETING THE HEADNOTE: TEXTUAL REMARKS. Once I've finished reading and have copied part or all of the item (or not), I complete the headnote. To the basic information I already have, I add the number of pages and the item's trim size (quarto, octavo, etc.), whether it's typed or handwritten and with what ("Green ink again!"), and what condition the item is in. ("Fragile," "pages missing," "heavily creased," "torn and repaired with tape," etc.)

    In addition, I note any special characteristics ("Used his office letterhead") and any materials included in the folder it was housed in, such as an envelope with a postmark or, sometimes, comments by the recipient. Finally, I note how I copied the item (photocopy, photograph, tape recording, or typed on my laptop), how much I copied, and the month and year I first examined it.

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4. COMPLETING THE HEADNOTE: CONTENT. When I've finished examining the item and copying all or part of it into the main section (if I need one), I make, and date, a content note. This reminds me of what's in the letter and allows me to search easily in the future for something I might need while I'm writing ("Darrow's bad qualities in court — Warns Sara not to trust Mary," etc.).

    I also include any standout remarks by the author ("'I think you and your sister good material for dope fiends'") as well as any unusual features ("funny cartoons").

    Finally, once I've finished analyzing the item (and have shifted my own remarks to the "Notes and Comments" at the end), I may include some of my comments or conclusions. Again, I always date any findings or conclusions, especially about the character and relationships of my protagonists. I do this because it's not unusual for a later piece of information or a more mature understanding to change my previous of the situation, or of someone's motives.

     Because my views and my ideas about the story evolve as I read and then revisit items, I summarize my conclusions, and my revised conclusions, in the headnote. I'm careful to date any revised conclusions as well as the originals, crossing out the latter but leaving them in place for future reference. In a project requiring years of research, I can't afford to rely on memory to keep track of what my most recent—and therefore presumably best-informed—line of thinking was.

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5. ORGANIZING THE FILE CHRONOLOGICALLY. When I go home at the end of the day, I generally spend the evening rearranging the headnotes and main entries in exact chronological order, or as near to that as I can come with the information I have.

    This is an exacting and tedious task, but an essential one, because the order in which a letter was written, a poem composed, or a speech delivered may reveal as much about the story as the item itself—sometimes more. For that very reason, though, often this chore is also one of the most exciting parts of the long day at the archives.

In my next post, I'll talk about the even more thrilling subject of putting headnotes to use.

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