When I was in college, one of my assignments was to listen to a guest speaker and write a magazine article on it. The speaker scheduled canceled out at the last minute, but one of the students popped up with another speaker. It was a scientist who spoke on why people shouldn’t use aspirin. This guy was the driest, most boring speaker I’ve ever heard, and he was stuck in science babble (think Bones). He could not explain anything in a way everyone understood him. So it was very difficult taking notes — especially since I understood very little of what he was talking about!
Taking research notes for your novel at a live event does have risks like the above. You also could get a speaker who wants far off the beaten path and into the wilderness or someone who is not well organized. But you can offset some of these problems by being prepared — and also remembering that this isn’t like school. You’re not going to be tested on what you pick up.
Have a general idea what you want to research. Probably the most important thing to do in advance. Even if you aren’t sure where you will go yet — my problem with Masks — you’ll have some basics that you will need, no matter what. Identifying those will help you pick the live events to go to and pick what you do need to take notes on and avoid what you probably will never use. Since I focus on setting as a character, a lot of my general research is on life during that time.
Prior research. It can be helpful to have research on the topic done before you attend the event. That’ll help you focus on the things you don’t know and putting it together with what you do. You may also be able to ask better questions if there’s a Q&A if you’ve done some research beforehand. But it isn’t required.
Summarize. In school, we try to capture all the details because, unfortunately, some teachers do focus on obscure details on tests. But with a novel, it’s more important to simply make sure we understand the information Summarizing helps cement our understanding.
Keep the notes short. The last thing you want to do is writing lengthy paragraphs and miss something that really is important for your story. Keep the notes short. Use abbreviations or shorthand if you can. Leave off articles like “a.” That might be tough for a writer though — I honestly will never be able to use abbreviations or shorthand. I’d actually have to make more effort to do it, so it’s easier for more to focus on keeping the note short.
Only take down what you can’t get elsewhere. For example, I can find out that the Battle of Gettysburg was in July 1863 by visiting the Gettysburg Welcome Center site or reading an encyclopedia. But finding the purpose of the parts of the Civil War dress is a lot harder to easily find (lots of books on battles and firearms, but almost nothing on the clothes).
Q&A sessions. If there are any Q&A sessions following the event, listen to the questions people ask. Sometimes you get surprises. Also, if people gather to talk to the speaker, join them because of the information you may be able to pick up. I was able to touch the fabric of two of the Civil War dresses at the fashion show — silk chiffon and silk taffeta. Ask questions if you can, because the opportunity is there.
After the event. Chances are the notes will be out of order in some way, especially if the topic wanders a bit. Once I return home, I retype the notes in EverNote and rearrange them by keywords. By keywords, I don’t mean what you type into Google — the keywords are how I would find them at a library if I wanted to build on the research. So, for my Civil War Fashion show, the keywords were Civil War, Fashion, Uniforms, Soldiers.
It can be a lot of fun going to a live event because you can interact with other people. Expect people to notice you taking notes and to ask questions, so be prepared to use the opportunity to practice your pitch.