This week, I listened to Tim Ferriss’s fantastic interview with Elizabeth Gilbert (episode #430). If you aren’t familiar with Liz, she’s the best-selling author of books such as Eat Pray Love, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, and City of Girls, an accomplished inspirational speaker, and an overall magical human being.
The interview covered a lot of ground, including a part where she shared in detail her note-taking system for writing a novel. It sounds like such a great way to keep track of everything. She did extensive research (a few years worth) for her most recent novel City of Girls, which is set in the 1940s.
Books by Elizabeth Gilbert
She calls the method her “book in a box” (though she says it actually ends up being multiple boxes by the end). She based it on a system she learned from her Western Civilization teacher when she was 14.
If you’re looking for an efficient way to keep track of your notes while writing a book, especially if you are doing a lot of legwork in the way of research, this could be a great system for you to try or to at least adopt some elements from.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s Note-Taking System for Writing a Novel
The “Book in a Box” Method
WHAT YOU NEED
Index cards, separators, at least one box (Liz uses shoe boxes), and a pen or pencil. That’s it! Of course, if you want to get really fancy, you could color-code them, too.
While you’re doing research and brainstorming ideas for your novel, use one card per note. That means each individual fact, idea, line of dialogue, or historical detail gets its own devoted card.
When doing research, assign a letter to each book you read (so, the first book you read would be Book A) so when you create an index card for a piece of information from that source, you can reference where it came from at the bottom of the card in case you ever want to go back to it. Also, include the page number you found it on. For example, A-23.
ORGANIZING THE NOTES
Keep your index cards organized by character, subject, chapter, and theme. For her notes for City of Girls, she had sections such as “Fashion – 1940s,” “Sexual Culture – 1940s,” and “Brooklyn Navy Yard” because her protagonist works there for a period of time in the book. She then stores them in a shoebox (or multiple shoeboxes) divided by each category.
THE RESEARCH PROCESS
Her extensive research process can be tedious and flat-out boring at times, but she points out that the pay-off is well worth the investment of her time and effort. She calls it part of her “stewardship and friendship” toward her future self.
“When I’m writing these notes to myself, I might be sitting there at the New York Public Library doing research on like, how much theater productions cost in the 1940s and you know, how much the sets would’ve cost and who would’ve been on hand ─ boring stuff. But I’ll just sit there and I’ll find some really great detail and I’ll write it on a card and be like, ‘Oh, my God, Future Liz is going to be so psyched when she finds this card three years from now because she’s going to be writing this scene and she’s going to be stuck and she’s going to reach in and she’s going to pull out this detail and she’s going to be like, ‘Oh YES!’ And then what happens, when I’m writing, I’ll reach in and I’ll find some amazing piece of dialogue on it or a great detail that really helps the scene and I’ll be like, ‘Thanks, Past Liz! You’re the best!’ And it’s like this little salute across time.
All of the preparation that I do is to help myself during the hard part, which is the actual creating a novel and I want to give myself all the help that I can because I want to suffer the least that I possibly can. So I do really try to show up for Future Liz.”
In the research process, she says there is the humility of feeling like a servant to the book you’re working on. The research is part of serving the project and the ideas that flow to you from it to the best of your ability.
THE WRITING PROCESS
Liz credits her note-taking system for writing a novel as one of the reasons she is able to beat writer’s block and stay productive once she begins the writing process.
“It’s such a great gift ─ it really helps me with writer’s block because as I’m introducing a new character into the story, all I had to do was reach into the box and pull out her file and because I’ve been putting notes in there for the last four years, I’ve got like a two-inch thick file on this character of details of why things she would say or what she’s wearing or ideas for character development and so it’s an assistance to myself when I sit down to write that I can draw upon that and use it and it makes it so, so, so much easier.”
Once she uses a card, she puts it into its own separate box so she can see how many she ended up using once she’s finished. Only a fifth of her notes typically makes it into her books. She says every note is important, though, because you don’t know what you’re going to need once you start writing. It’s best to over-prepare.
What do you think of this note-taking system for writing a novel? Are you going to try it?