So, I realized that lately I’ve been going into historical research to justify worldbuilding in secondary world fantasies, but I haven’t really had a chance to touch on my actual note taking process. It’s something that absolutely, positively doesn’t work for everyone and I find that if you try to copy someone else’s method for note-taking you’ll probably have a hard time going back over your notes and making sense of them later. I kind of cobbled this method together between university, taking technical notes in meetings at work, and a few other random inspirations.
Right now I take all my notes in a small, spiral bound Mead book. I used to use larger three-ring binders (particularly during college lectures) but I have come to view the notebook as a transitional tool between what I’m studying and what’s going to end up in my Scrivener “Research” folder. I don’t do a lot of organizing on paper; I read the books, I take notes as I’m going, and then I organize and sort things as I translate them from a physical text to a digital one.
I make due with a pen and a yellow highlighter, but if you do prefer to organize on paper I really can’t recommend multiple colored highlighters enough. If for no other reason than being able to color code stuff for easy reference later (I used to do language in blue, dates in purple, etc), it saves you quite a bit of time.
My notes over the last three months have been desert-themed, due to writing multiple short stories and also working on my novel all drawing from a lot of middle eastern inspiration, albeit radically different parts of that world (eastern Turkey and getting into the steppe lands, the medieval Ottomans, the Bedouin and the rise of ibn Saud, late 19th century Cairo for the most prominent examples) and a big part of this is to keep the notes very distinct from one another and not accidentally, inadvertently have some bleed over into near east orientalism where I attribute the wrong stuff to the wrong culture and treat everything as kind of a big sandy blob. Moving to Australia has helped out a ton here, there is so much raw information and data about Gallipoli and various other Anzac/Ottoman conflicts that it’s staggering to pick through the local library.
So let’s flip to a few pages here. My longest one is a list of non-English words I might want to use either as inspiration for names, or as descriptors where we don’t have a translation in the English language and I end up throwing it in as an italicized foreign term for the characters to expound on, just a dash of flavor. This is a bit of a mishmash but as I move it into Scrivener I sort it by language background:
- Lugul – Akkad – “Big Man / Lord / not to level of king but upper echelons of tribal nobility”
- Ziusudra – Sumer – Noah figure, global flood mythology, recurring figure, cross ref to deluge stories
- Sipahi – Turkish/Ottoman – Special caste of cavalry broken into two subclasses, fief holders and palace guards, historical rivals of the Janissary corps, in decline from early 1800s and disbanded by 1827
- Muḥtasib – Persian, later Ottoman – Specific brand of bazaar inspectors, regulated prices and quality of goods, prevented disputes, contributed to stagnation compared to global market when prices were not allowed to compete with western ones, fell as mercantile class grew 1800s+
- Hujjar – Arabic – Oasis towns with small farming communities later fortified and used as military and religious training grounds for Mutawwa’a, ritual specialists and religious police with right to carry weaponry
- Khamsin – Arabic nomads – Regional term for specific kind of sandstorm that could rise upwards of 5 stories but moved as a wall rather than a spinning motion
This goes on and on in a similar manner, and in Scrivener I have a language folder broken down into about a dozen subfolders for the regional terms that I can open up when I need a quick reference.
After that I have something I might describe as worldbuilding notes, facts, stuff in the text that stood out to me as interesting, this is mainly culled from my Ottoman pages:
- 1913 – Ottoman empire had 500-550 cars to USA’s 1 million, imported thousands more over half decade but no roads or infrastructure to support them until postwar.
- 1914 – First airboat debut over imperial lands.
- 1915 – Modernization efforts increase, series of public works projects set up like the New Deal Era but without as much financial backing or planning and a heavier emphasis on military growth, later fell through as most men of fighting age recruited.
- Printing press from 1700s onward
- Despite complaints about European decadence western Europe was used as a model for reform culminating in assembly with sultan as theocratic figurehead, took 1/10th the time as most other countries where this happened.
- Secular military education replaces religious service for primary source of social mobility 1850 onward.
There’s a bit of a fuzzy boarder between that section and the following one, which is where I list out specific incidents I might want to use as inspiration for plot points in the story. The prior stuff is more background and might not even be revealed to the reader, but I feel that I need to keep it in my mind to maintain internal consistency of how the setting works.
This is a lot more… flexible, and I’ll often jot down notes as to how to tweak it to be in line with the story. In this case I’m drawing pretty heavily from the biographies of T.E. Lawrence I’ve been reading:
- An impoverished family in the desert might have 2-3 spouses, 10 head of livestock and a small date garden.
- No payment ever accepted for lodging, drinking with a traveler in your tent codifies him or her as a family member for the duration of the night.
- Higher tier officers were known to literally cut gory details out of battle reports with knives or “accidentally” stain them to the point of illegibility before sending them up the chain to the politicians.
- Often-garbled telegraph transmissions provide deniability for ignoring orders in the trenches and acting on directions of local officer rather than those who outrank him.
- 5 tribes and 10-12 clans together might produce 10k trained warriors.
- In tribal confederations outsiders could be called upon to dispense corporal and capital punishment due to their status as neutral observers.
- Oases regularly contaminated with corpses by retreating, spiteful enemy forces.
- Armed with British guns and positioned like snipers Bedouin might makes 1/8 shots count, allowed to perform hit and run attacks incorporating pistols and melee weapons it wasn’t unheard of for a hundred of them to whittle down 300-400 out of 500 men in a day.
And so on and so forth.
A big part of writing all this down is that it helps in metacognition. When you take notes you are thinking not just about the immediate story or text you’re reading but which parts you want to use, which in turn forces you to think about the entirety in a greater depth. This helps you retain the knowledge even better. Repeatedly writing it down, even just once with pen and once with keyboard lodges it firmly in your brain. If you have an idea while reading something, write it and any relevant notes down and you have a safety net to keep it from falling out of your head.
Aside from copious research and note taking, I have been plowing through Alan Moore’s Jerusalem. Boy. I read pretty damn fast, and this was like the literary equivalent of pushing through a marathon with lead weights. That’s not to say it’s a bad novel by any means, but it is long and it is incredibly dense to read. Moore does not hold your hand at all here, it’s up to you to actually pay attention and to keep up. The story is both classic more and a new take on it. I’ve been a huge fan of his comics for a very long time and there are similar themes of cosmicism, the banality of magic, you see bits and pieces of From Hell and Promethea peaking through the corners, but it’s an entirely new twist by focusing on one very small region and everyone who passes through it over the years. The basic core of the story involves the trials and tribulations of a man who choked to death on a throat lozenge as a child, miraculously came back to life, and it plagued by recurring memories of the afterlife as a pool hall where strange angels play snooker with human souls, and this strand forms the core of the braid around which more and more layers are wrapped. There are ghosts, and monsters, and sex workers, and car crashes, and dozens of other little stories that make up the greater patchwork.
It’s one of those books where I think everyone who likes the subject matter should give it a try, but it’s not going to be for everybody. The comparisons to James Joyce are apt, it’s a read that seems to make itself more difficult simply for the sake of doing so or at the artist’s pleasure, and that’s totally fine but also frustrating. I really do think he could have told the same story in half the length and not lost that much. I do not need multiple paragraphs dedicated to the hue of a pot of urine under a man’s bed when that pot plays no role beyond the scene, and it feels like it was jammed in there just to see how many ways Moore could describe it to the reader, as an early example. Unlike Joyce where part of the fun is going back and re-reading to look for deeper meaning in the text, I can’t see myself making this particular slog again any time soon.