by | Jan 23, 2019 | Gayle Lynds, On writing | 10 comments

Tidy piles begging to be sorted. Figure about 1,000 pages.

By Gayle Lynds

How do you feel about research?  I love it.  I really do.  Except when I’ve collected an overabundance of clippings and printouts of articles and stories.  Why do I do that?  In the first place, I’m curious.  And in the second, I’m convinced (at the time) all will be absolutely, positively necessary to create the kind of exciting international thriller I like to read — and write.

When CBS Sunday Morning arrived at our house last summer to film an interview with me, one of the cameramen walked into my office and called in everyone else:

Just 4 of my boxes. Susan Spencer on left, me on right.

“Look at the boxes!”  He’d already aimed his camera and was filming my wall of research.

On his heels, the second cameraman arrived.  “What boxes?”  Then he started filming, too.

Susan Spencer, the renowned CBS correspondent, joined us and closed in on my wall.  She read the titles on some of the boxes:  “CIA!  Military technology!  The White House!  Gayle’s Medical Records — we’ll skip those….  Soviet & Russian Intelligence!”

“I’m not good at filing,” I explained, feeling a need to justify myself.  “But I don’t mind tossing notes and clippings and printouts into boxes.”  Of course that part about not minding was a lie.  I’ll get to that in a moment.

They’d never seen anything like my system of boxes.  I was pretty chuffed, except of course it’s sorta like someone’s finding out you’re wearing gorgeous gloves because you’ve got warts on your fingers.  The truth is, I despise, loathe, and despair when it comes to filing into file folders.  I learned a long time ago that all my research will grow into a huge mound that will eventually resemble Mount Everest if my only choice is file folders.

I’m sure there’s some deep pathological fear or distrust that explains it, but in 30 years of off-and-on counseling (hey, I’m a writer, of course I need counseling), I still have no idea why I don’t trust file folders.

For the past 18 months, I’ve been collecting research clippings and printouts, and once again I’ve lost the battle to convince myself to file them into folders.  Instead, I paw through the research, looking for the ones I want to use.  It’s a frustratingly inefficient system.

But it’s a familiar one.  It’s only a matter of time until my inefficiency grows geometrically greater than my hatred of filing.  Then… 

I’ve got a book I’m desperate to write!

I’ve tossed 200-300 pages & am organizing – there’s hope!

I haul the mountains of research, boxes, pens, staplers, scissors, and a large coffee cup to our dining room table.  Whew.  That was hard. But think of all the news, the analyses, the insights and opinions and historical perspectives piled in front of me!  Exciting!

I stare.  I take the rest of the day off. 

The next morning, I make myself coffee and sit at the table, fighting a sense of being over stimulated.  I have to read enough of each clipping to figure out into which box or pile it should go.  I pick up the first one and start…. 

● Hiding money in Corsica.  Hiding money is always interesting.  Keep.
● Putin’s oligarches and silovicki are restless because the economy is going south — maybe there’ll be a coup, because without their support Putin can’t survive politically.  Gotta love that one.  Keep.
● Albania is opening up the files of the Sigurimi, the feared Communist-era state security police.  Looks as if some politicians and business leaders who collaborated will get rapped on the knuckles.  Oh, how times have changed.  But maybe there’s a secret in there that I can use for character background….  Sigh, keep.

With luck, our dining room table in a few days

That’s it.  My curiosity is aroused, which takes me to the next problem — I’m INTERESTED!  And that means I have to decide whether to keep reading or make myself stop and figure out where to put the clip.  It’s a rough process.  But I’m getting the hang of it.  (See photo above of fewer piles on the table.)

As you can see, I love research.  It’s the disposition of it that’s a problem.  Oh, I also buy and read books for background and depth.  You should see my bookshelves, but that’s another story. 

So dear Rogue Reader … how do you handle the “little” details of your life that you must do but find your reluctance is holding you up?

Don’t Miss a Thing!



  1. Lisa Black

    As I’m reading one of your books right now, the volumes of information you use to write a book doesn’t surprise me!!! The amount of fascinating information in is fabulous!!!

  2. Gayle Lynds

    I'm glad you're enjoying it, Lisa. That's lovely of you to let me know, and that you're enjoying the research, too. I despair about the filing part. 🙂

  3. David Tambo

    I seem to recall that Dennis had boxes of 'idea' files that are similar to what you describe. Great insight into how a person's mind works.

  4. Jamie Freveletti

    So interesting to see your system for organizing research. One question, you mention that you'd already thrown out many pages. What criteria did you use to toss? I'm getting ready to organize my research and would love a tip or two. Great post!

  5. Anonymous

    I like boxes for research, too! I also have files for crap-tons of legal research I've forgotten about. But boxes for pithy comments, ideas, funny stuff is part of my research style!

    Laura Hernandez

  6. Chris Goff

    I have tried a number of things–files, digital–I think I like your system. I may try it! If only I can find a place for the boxes. When we moved from our house with library and office to a small condo, I had two floor-to-ceiling built-in bookcases added to the living room. 10' x 3', and deep. And I had another 10'x 4' bookcase put in my office. They are all crammed full of books, and still have books in smaller bookcases in every room and in boxes in storage. Still….how big is your wall of boxes?? Seems to me it spanned one whole wall of your office behind your desk, right?

  7. Robin Burcell

    You, Gayle, are what's called a "horizontal filer." It's a thing. I, too, have this love/hate relationship with filing. I'd love for it all to be filed away, but hate that I can't readily see it. I do the same with my desk. I need to get to this, so if I tuck it away–out of sight, out of mind. No can do. I need to see it. I need to readily be able to access it. Problem is, I run out of horizontal space. All you're doing is filing horizontally instead of hanging. What you've written on the box is what you'd write on the tabs. You would need an accordion file or something wide enough to hold the papers. Or… and this is a big step for someone like you or me… we scan each piece, give it a title (like "international banking laws") and tuck it into the International Money Laundering file. But that's a big step and I'm not ready… yet.

  8. Karna Bodman

    As for collecting/organizing your research, filing, thinking routines – I say "If it ain't broke, don't fix it." Your system obviously works beautifully for you because it so much gets incorporated into fabulous thrillers…so whatever you are doing — keep it up. As for my "system"- I too collect a ton of articles, interviews, and more than I "might" use in a future thriller. I do use file folders for "settings," "humor," "White House details," etc. But when I finally sit down to write the book, I have to admit it can get a bit crazy since we spend the winter in Naples, spring and fall in DC and summer in California — that's when the challenge is: which files to schlep with me? I'm still figuring that out. Now thanks for a great, thought-provoking post!

  9. john

    Great blog, Gayle! I wish I had your perseverance (1) to do the research and then (2) to clean up after I finished!

  10. Terry

    File folders? Oh, you mean those rectangular paper-eaters? The ones that once you put something in them you are not allowed to open them again? I thought I was the only one who couldn't make file folders work. I watch my husband happily file every little piece of paper, and then retrieve the items when needed. How does that happen? I think part of the proem is that I don't what to label half the things I see. EVERYTHING is miscellaneous.