Index Cards & Buffalo Chips

You’ve heard the adage about using the whole buffalo? Hold that thought. I read this week James Alexander Thom’s The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction, in which he warns about the danger of relying on the digital storage of extensive research, and the need to retain the material after a book is published, in case some picky sniffer challenges you, or better, you are asked to speak about the book in the future.

I was reminded of the laptop I killed by watering a philodendron hanging over my desk. Ouch! Further more, the CDs on which I had backed up don’t meld with my current computer. (In fact CDs are pretty much obsolete, a fact driven home when I realized that the only device I own that plays my CD music is my car.)

Alternatively, I’ve long touted the use of index cards–cheap, portable, easy to sort or color code, and impervious to dripping plant pots. (Realistically, you can lose them or have your tote bag catch fire. So far I’ve lost a few but the tote bag is intact.) Given Thom’s convincing argument for hardcopy back up, I spent a useful hour this week tidying my card catalog. I tossed index cards that had lost the connection to whatever topic I had researched. I kept the bibliography cards, where I record the author, title, and location of books or online information that I’ve found useful. I record where I made notes from the source in question. Because I date my journals/notebooks, a typical entry might be “Notes: Jan 2016, p. 7.”

Ta da! I can continue my compulsive scribbling as I read, and I can retrieve the scribbles if I need them. Some part of the beast has become unexpectedly useful, like burning dry buffalo chips in a new campfire. All my “chips” are arranged alphabetically by topic in a file box made for index cards. If the house doesn’t flood or burn or get ransacked, my research is safe. That’s a relief.

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