General Interest

What a Database Program Can Do for Your Nonfiction Book

This article appeared in the March/April 1998 issue of Writers’ Journal.
By Eve Kushner

Nonfiction book writers amass mountains of data. Many not only produce countless pages of notes or transcribed interviews but also collect related books and articles. How can writers keep track of what they have? The problem can overwhelm even a neat freak.

For instance, when I researched my nonfiction book, I conducted 115 lengthy interviews, which presented an organizational nightmare. How could I find quotations? How could I know which ones I had already cited? As for taking notes on reference sources, I was at a loss. I could not spread index cards across the floor for months. Plus, I didn’t want to copy notes onto index cards and then type them into the text.

The solution for organizing all this information lay in the database program that manages my financial life—FileMaker Pro. On an IBM, a comparable solution is Microsoft Access. A database can hold millions of pieces of information. Thus one can enter, delete, arrange, retrieve, and sort quickly. This type of program is like a well-organized storeroom that shuffles its contents with the press of a button and presents the items you request.

Despite this sophistication, a database simply looks like a table. You create rows and columns and fill the boxes with information. A column called “Interviewees” could list a different person in every row. Another column could contain these people’s quotations. To take notes on books, you could create columns for titles, authors, key passages, and your reactions to those texts.

As you begin working with a database, you may wonder whether it can meet your needs. Rest assured that the program can do far more than you suspect.

  • Your interviews took two hours each. How can so much text fit in a box? You can make the boxes broad and deep, but that’s not the way to go. Divide up your material and put one idea to a row. After this separation, you might have 90 quotations for one speaker. The more you break down information, the easier it will be to organize.
  • You have typed pages of notes and do not feel like re-entering them into the database. Don’t retype a word! With one command, you can move text from a document into the database. The information will fall into appropriate rows and columns. Similarly, another command exports information from the database into a text document.
  • You fear that if the table grows large, you will not be able to locate information again. Databases exist to meet this very need! You can do searches, using however many words or numbers you like. Say you wish to view data for the firefighters you interviewed and you have a column called “Occupation.” In that column, search for the word “firefighters.” Within seconds, the information will appear.
  • You can’t remember how you labeled one quotation. In fact, you recall nothing except that it contained the word “dog.” In the “Quotation” column, do a search for “dog.” Not only will the desired quotation come up but three other comments about dogs will also appear. You might then decide to use a different dog quotation.
  • You created so many columns that you no longer have room on the screen. Don’t keep scrolling to the right. Instead, create new layouts with select columns. Three different layouts might contain your “Quotations” column. The program links these layouts; if you change a quotation in one, the program will update every instance of the same quotation.
  • You need to see how your notes relate to each other. For instance, you want to contrast data for Buddhists with information about Protestants. A search for “Buddhist and Protestant” will present both types of data together. Alternatively, sort items in the “Religion” column so that you can see all members of each faith grouped together.

My database not only allowed me to keep information at my fingertips but also helped me map out my book. I wanted my quotations to determine the book’s content. I created columns to label the issues that each comment reflected and to summarize the quotation. Then, in another column, I noted which chapters would accommodate each item.

Once I labeled the quotations, I could plan the book in detail. I needed to decide what major topics each chapter would cover. I scanned the “Issues” column and had the computer count instances of each topic to see which ones predominated. This method enabled me to rise above the details to create a larger picture.

I recommend allocating material early on, not as you write. You wouldn’t build a kitchen and then consider how the rest of the house might look. With that approach, you would find that the kitchen had the wrong shape and was in an inconvenient place. Planning a book’s contents beforehand is the best way to avoid having chapters overlap.

After you decide what material goes where, write one-page chapter outlines that reflect your decisions. Use large type and post all the outlines so that you can read them from your writing chair. That way, you can survey the whole book at once.

In addition to helping you locate evidence and plan out chapters, a database program can manage a third, crucial area—reference sources. In various columns, you can record the author, title, publication information, and description of every text you collect. If you forget a title, but recall a word in your description, you can search for that word and retrieve the information. You can also use the program to sequence your references alphabetically or chronologically, which makes it painless to compile a bibliography.

Your database can do nearly everything except make coffee. Will this technology distract you from your topic, though? On the contrary, the program allows you to spend time thinking about your subject rather than riffling through paper. Without the frustration of locating material, you can devote yourself to finding just the right word.