Dreaming of Idaho: Illuminating the Literature of Idaho through Zane Grey’s Thunder Mountain

Odds are that most Idaho writers did not grow up dreaming of becoming an “Idaho” author. Smart money would assume they simply desired to write, and be prosperous in writing, and geographic location played no part in their decision to put pen to paper. However, readers often like to associate authors with geographic regions. This is because the work either contains elements of that region within its content or the author has some connection to the area through birth or place of residence. Idaho readers are no different in that regard, embracing writers such as Vardis Fisher or Mary Hallock Foote. While “Idaho author” may seem like a simple concept to define, it is actually a nuanced literary construction. For example, Ernest Hemingway is often considered an Idaho author but he is also claimed by many other states and places around the world. This essay will examine what goes into making a writer an Idaho author. This undertaking will use Western genre novel writer Zane Grey’s 1932 novel Thunder Mountain which is set in Idaho to examine this literary exploration. Thunder Mountain is a fictionalized telling of the Idaho mining camp of the same name.

What is our collective fascination with the fictions and truths of the West and by extension Idaho? Robert Penn Warren tapped into something true when writing about a character briefly seeking solace in the physical and metaphorical West in All The King’s Men (1946).

“For West is where we all plan to go some day. It is where you go when you get the letter saying: Flee, all is discovered. It is where you go when you look down at the blade in your hand and see blood on it. It is where you go when you are told that you a bubble on the tide of empire. It is where you go when you hear that thar’s gold in them-thar hills. It is where you go to grow up with the country. It is where you go to spend your old age. Or it is just where you go. (p.286)”


But this Robert Penn Warren character is only a visitor to the West — an interloper or outsider — defining what the West is for us.

Zane Grey’s Thunder Mountain might certainly be viewed in the same way towards its description of Idaho. It is a fictionalized telling of the Idaho mining camp of the same name. The story centers on a rough and tumble cowboy from Missouri turned miner, who garnered his reputation in Montana. He takes under his wing a tenderfoot father and daughter from out East and helps interpret the wild west of Idaho for them. Ironically, this outsider interpretation for others of Idaho, its landscapes and experiences, is reminiscent of many writers who live in and write about Idaho. Grey was not from Idaho, nor did he live here. Thunder Mountain is his only significant work with a setting in Idaho. So then, is Grey’s interpretation of Idaho an accurate one? Is this Idaho literature?

Grey was known to write formulaic novels. Ronald (1975) describes the Zane Grey formula in this manner.

“An Easterner – that is, an innocent – arrives in the West. He, or she, has been a failure in the past and seems unprepared to meet the challenges ahead. The land at first seems harsh and unforgiving – the sun is too hot, the canyons too deep, the peaks too rugged, the rivers too swift. Problems are compounded by the appearance of evil, of men who live by their guns and who care nothing for the rights of others. Gradually, however, the neophyte becomes a man. Rather than be beaten by the environment, he learns to conquer the elements, and in doing so acquires a deep appreciation for the land. (p. 13)


Thunder Mountain definitely follows this familiar plot-line but Ronald also notes that “(m)ost important, the Zane Grey formula is an outgrowth of the author’s personal experiences, a reiteration of his own journey to the frontier” (Ronald, 1975 p.13). Grey did indeed experience Idaho as he journeyed to the remote area around Thunder Mountain on a multi-day horse packing trip. This trip served as the basis of inspiration for the rich descriptions he includes in Thunder Mountain such as this description along a canyon in the Salmon River:

“Somehow it had induced lingering hours of happy reverie, to which he had long been a stranger. The place was down around the bend from the valley, where a bench of sage nestled under a great wall. The melodious murmur of the stream came up; the warm sun beat down; the sweetness of sage almost intoxicating; the solitude was omnipresent; and across the canyon a tremendous broken slope as many-sided as that mountain could boast. Long glistening slants of talus, rugged narrow defiles winding up, grassy benches fringed with fir, huge sections of splintered cliff hanging precariously, and patches of black lodge-pole lines stepped endlessly to the blue sky (p.15).”


This trip has been documented in at least two articles (Kimball 1973; Waite 1996) and each approach this trip through the eyes of an Idahoan marveling at the otherness of Zane Grey with his fancy saddle and Japanese cook that accompanies him. Despite the otherness of Zane Grey’s camping provisions, it could be argued that Grey did indeed experience Idaho and this experience is found with the surprisingly descriptive prose of Thunder Mountain. Ronald (1975) notes that Grey had once stated “My inspiration to write has always come from nature. Character and action are subordinated to setting (p.14).”  Ronald concurs but suggests alternatively that “Character and action are not subordinated to setting, but rather are developed by it. The three work together, with setting providing the impetus for change (p.14-15).” As setting plays such an important role in the development of Grey’s work, it could then be thought that the setting of Idaho is the primary protagonist in Thunder Mountain since, as Ronald suggests, it is the vehicle which not only drives the plot but also initiates change in the characters. From this angle, Thunder Mountain is indeed a book about Idaho and should be embraced heartily as part of its literature.

However the geographic Thunder Mountain itself serves as its own warning against accepting Grey’s interpretation without considering some additional complexity. A historical treatise on the mining camp: “Many stories have been written about Thunder Mountain… most of them all too strongly embellished with fiction in an effort to make them more interesting, even though most of these (are) fictional efforts on the part of authors, (they) destroy the true concept this historical attraction (Willson, 1962, p.3-4)”. One wonders what these fictions of Thunder Mountain might inform about Idaho itself. How does Idaho fare as an attraction in the fiction of Idaho? How true… how fair… how real are these works to Idaho? Could the creators of these “fictional works” rightly be called Idaho authors? Or is Idaho simply a setting for these writers?

Another historical work frames Thunder Mountain in these terms: “Thunder Mountain had a romantic name anyway: acting as a sounding board for lightning which danced off nearby  Lightning Peak, that somewhat inconspicuous mountain offered legend writers a welcome opportunity to display their talents (Oberbillig & ISHS, 1966,  p. 8).”  While these historical works are referring to the mining promotional material regarding Thunder Mountain, they still ring true with the concept of Idaho and the West as places of both fictions and inspiration.

In suggesting that Thunder Mountain is Idaho literature, we must examine its reception in Idaho. Idaho libraries and their collections are potentially good barometers as to how to categorize various literature. Libraries require concrete definitions in order to catalog, shelve, and locate materials in their collections. These gray areas in the definition of what is an Idaho author, such as those presented by Thunder Mountain, present a challenge for libraries in collection development, presentation, and organization of materials. Patrons often ask for works by Idaho authors and good reader’s advisory practices would have libraries provide resources to identify such writers. In developing these resources, libraries have constructed definitions and subject headings as to what an Idaho author or work might be.

The Boise Public Library maintains an Idaho Room Collection that houses materials related to Idaho that is primarily non-fiction. A summary of their collection policy is that the Idaho Room Collection will contain:

“All published materials about Idaho in general are collected, with a specific emphasis in selected categories on material relating to Southwest Idaho or in some cases the Boise area only… With the exception of the works of a very few prominent Idaho writers such as Vardis Fisher and Mary Hallock Foote, fiction is not collected.”

It is very interesting to note that the collection contains fiction such as works by Vardis Fisher and Mary Hallock Foote. This indicates that there must be some additional Idaho criteria to make it into that collection as a fiction writer. Unfortunately, neither Thunder Mountain nor Zane Grey meet this criteria as the work is not found within the Idaho Room Collection. Ironically, a work about Zane Grey’s trip to visit Thunder Mountain (Waite, 1996), and another about Thunder Mountain itself (Willson, 1962) are both found within the Idaho Room Collection[1]. So perhaps Thunder Mountain makes the cut but Thunder Mountain does not?

Despite not being found in the Idaho Room, Thunder Mountain is available in Boise Public Library’s main collection as Zane Grey is a popular writer of the Western genre. Looking closely at the record in the catalog, one sees the subject heading “Idaho-Fiction” associated with this work[2]. This subject heading is also found in the Worldcat record for this work.[3] So on the one hand, Thunder Mountain falls under the subject Idaho-Fiction but on the other does meet the criteria of being authored by a prominent Idaho writer per the Idaho Room Collection policy.

This two-tiered collection of Idaho literature is very similar to that of Albertsons Library at Boise State University.  Alberstons Library maintains an Idaho materials collection. However instead of separating by nonfiction and fiction, Idaho works are gathered by author or content.

The library maintains a research collection of Idaho materials. This collection provides information about Idaho, and supports research for Boise State University faculty and students, as well as for the local community. Monographs of 49 or more pages, about Idaho, by an Idaho author, and/or published by a “small press” in Idaho, are collected, with these exceptions: documents, cookbooks, and genealogy and consumable materials. An Idaho author is defined as a person who was born in Idaho and/or is living in Idaho at the time of publication. The library also maintains a selective collection of State and Federal publications, compact discs and videos that are significant in documenting the history, culture and environment of Idaho. (https://library.boisestate.edu/about/colldev/)

Thunder Mountain is found both within Albertsons Library’s Idaho research collection, as well as in the main collection of circulating materials. So while Zane Grey might not be considered an Idaho author by birth or residence, Thunder Mountain still meets the criteria to be included under the subject heading of Idaho-Fiction, as well as found within the Idaho research collection at Albertsons Library.

While it is hard to say if the inclusion of Thunder Mountain in these libraries is due to its geographic setting in Idaho or because of the popularity of Zane Grey in general what can’t be disputed is that Grey experienced Idaho and attempted to reflect that experience within its pages. Experience should not be discounted and perhaps is one of the most important criteria to describing what Idaho literature is. In his book The Literature of Idaho: An Anthology, Maguire (1986) attributes a quote to author Wallace Stegner about what might make legitimate writing which is that those authors ”had one great virtue in common: they knew what they were talking about.” (p. 134). It could be argued that Grey ‘knew what he was talking about’ in his fictionalized story of Thunder Mountain because he translated his Idaho experience within its pages.

I would argue that the best criteria for someone to be considered an Idaho author or a work to be considered Idaho literature is experience. This is both a collective and individualized experience. Literature helps develop the identity of the reader, by the reader either accepting or rejecting each work as “Idaho” based on their own individual and complex notions of what makes Idaho… Idaho. Sometimes these notions are tangible experiences while others cannot easily be articulated; yet the reader can still distinguish the “Idaho-ness” of what they are reading through the reflection of their own lives.  An author not only reports in their work on a moment in Idaho but keeps and reinforces what Idaho is, and perhaps what it could be in a reader’s mind.

Blew (1999) writes about the community of authors in Idaho supporting each other through the common undertaking of simply writing in Idaho. For this community of writers there was no “aboutness” regarding their work only they shared a common understanding of what it was to be an author in the West.

This commonality, trust, and acceptance are also shared with their readers. You are a reader in Idaho; reading a book about Idaho; by an author with some tie to its content or place. Idaho is a land of communities, communities of writers, communities of readers, a community of literature, which all work to define what is Idaho. Book, author, and reader form their own community and the strength of this union depends on the common bonds and boundaries between all three. If Idaho becomes one of these bonds, or a bridge to mutual meaning, then a work, and its author should be considered “Idaho”.  This connection to Idaho is based on mutual understanding, experiences, and trust. If, for example, you read Anthony Doerr’s Boise-based short story “For a Long Time This Was Griselda’s Story” from The Shell Collector (2002) but did not trust the historical veracity of the material based on your own experiences and understandings, perhaps then the connection between author, reader, and work, is tenuous. There is little commonality for the reader to build from or categorize that work for the reader. Thus for that reader, the work is not Idaho enough to be included within the category of Idaho literature.

This sort of reader assessment is a perfectly acceptable criterion for what is Idaho literature, because like the West, the definition of Idaho literature remains slippery. Lyon describes “(o)ur image of the West was prone to a certain dreaminess (1999, p.1)”. Our certain dreaminess of the West, indeed… for perhaps it is our certain dreaminess of what is Idaho that is what we truly use to define Idaho, its literature and its authors. I have often heard it said, whether rightly or wrongly, that you cannot consider yourself a true speaker of a foreign language until you begin to dream in that language. Perhaps this premise is true also for Idaho authors (maybe even its readers too) – You can’t consider yourself an Idaho author until you begin to dream of Idaho or inspire others to dream of Idaho. That is what true Idaho author should be, someone whose work allows us to look and dream of Idaho in new and true ways through different eyes. To put it simply, Idaho literature is that which illuminates Idaho for the reader. The works that allow us to dream and understand Idaho in richer and deeper ways, are those of the true Idaho author.

So is Thunder Mountain Idaho literature? In my estimation it most certainly is. As such is the case then so can its author, Zane Grey, be counted as an Idaho author, for Thunder Mountain is a portal for the reader to dream and wonder and ultimately discover Idaho for themselves.

Rick Stoddart is a Reference and Instruction Librarian at the University of Idaho

Works Cited

Blew, M. C. (1999). Within the rough-edged circle. In Bone deep in the landscape: Essays on                  writing, reading, and place. University of Oklahoma.

Doerr, A. (2002). The shell collector: Stories. New York: Scribner.

Grey, Z. (1932). Thunder mountain. New York: Grosset & Dunlap

Lyon, T. J. (1999). Introduction: The conquistador, the Lone Ranger and beyond. In The literary               West: An anthology of western American literature. Oxford University Press. 1-18

Maguire, J. H. (1986). The Literature of Idaho: An anthology: selected and edited by James H.                 Maguire. Boise, Idaho: Hemingway Western Studies, Boise State University.

Oberbillig, E. & Idaho State Historical Society (ISHS). (1966). Idaho State Historical Reference                Series, Number 20: Thunder Mountain. Boise, Idaho: Idaho Historical Society. http://history.idaho.gov/sites/default/files/uploads/reference-series/0020b.pdf

Ronald, A. (1975). Western Writers Series, no. 17: Zane Grey. Boise, Idaho: Boise State                          University.

Kimball, E. (1973). Trail to Thunder Mountain – A packer describes the prelude to a Zane Grey                 book. True West. (March-April) 24-28, 42-?

Waite, R.G. (1996). Zane Grey and Thunder Mountain. Idaho Yesterdays. 39(winter). 18-23

Warren, R. P. (1946). All the king’s men. New York: Harcourt, Brace.

Willson, E. (1962). The Thunder Mountain story: Thunder Mountain “tome up”. Idaho: s.n.


[1] Search undertaken 6/28/2016 at http://www.boisepubliclibrary.org/

[2] Search undertaken 6/28/2016 at http://www.boisepubliclibrary.org/

[3] https://uidaho.on.worldcat.org/oclc/1279105?databaseList=638

Taking the Lead on ESSA: Three sentences you should repeat to anyone who will listen

The State Department of Education released their first draft of Idaho’s version of the federa Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) this Wednesday, the same afternoon the ILA ESSA committee met with representatives from the American Association of School Libraries (AASL) to talk over advocacy strategies for the implementation of the new plan. The timing could not have been better.

It was easy for this school librarian to feel hopeful when ESSA passed at the federal level. For the first time in more than 50 years, here was a federal education policy that specifically understood the importance of school library programs in student success. However, this federal legislation only authorized school libraries and librarians to have access to additional funding sources for their programs, there was no language that required, or really even encouraged, state education agencies to include school library programs in their revised education planning.

But a simple CTRL-F search of Idaho’s draft document was disheartening. The word “library” appeared only once in the entire draft, and in reference to public libraries, not school library programs.

There is still so much work left to do.

But it is important to remember that the purpose of so much education policy is to provide as much freedom as possible to local schools and districts so that they can be more nimble and responsive to their unique communities and student populations. In some ways, this distributed decision making feels overwhelming, but it also makes district decision-makers much more accessible to school librarians, their supervisors, and organizations like ILA.

The AASL guidance workshop provided three critical talking points for interacting with school staff, parents, students, administrators, and community members, each related to a major area of focus addressed by ESSA.

Improving Basic Programs

Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, of which ESSA is the latest iteration, focuses on those core programs that scaffold, support and shape students’ educational experiences. The message here is one we’ve been repeating for years:

“School Librarians and access to effective school library programs impact student achievement, digital literacy skills, and school climate and culture.”

Providing Effective Instruction

Title II addresses professional development and supports for teachers and school staff to increase the teaching capacity and effectiveness of all staff. This is an ideal opening to talk about the unique opportunities school librarians have both to receive and to lead professional development opportunities:

“School librarians share their learning with other professionals when they attend conferences and workshops, applying the benefits of new techniques, strategies, and technologies to the entire district.”

Accessing Funds

Title IV provides avenues for programs supporting academic achievement and student success. In ESSA, school library programs are specifically mentioned as eligible for these federal dollars, but we have to remind decision-makers of that:

“School librarians increase access to personalized, rigorous learning experiences supported by technology allowing equitable resources for all students.”

Memorize these three sentences. In any conversation you find yourself in, with fellow librarians, with your child’s teacher or principal, with other parents, with school and district administrator, and even in social media, find ways to put them in. Helping school decision-makers to understand these three key points is so much more important that any written policies.

Erin H. Downey is District Consulting Librarian for the Boise School District



Writing a Research Paper

Learning to research information is an invaluable skill. It is important to learn how to do quality research regardless of whether you are on the job and need to research something for your boss, whether you are working on a personal project that could benefit from the added value of research, or whether you are a student doing research for a class.  Learning this skill is worth the effort and will benefit you for years.

How to begin writing a research paper

First steps

The very first step in writing a research paper is to make certain you understand the assignment. Read through the assignment carefully making sure you understand it well enough to restate it in your own words.  Pay close attention to any instructions regarding the subject of the paper, the suggested length and any requirements regarding the sources you may use.

[Click on the link below and go through the three steps to understanding your assignment.]

Understand your assignment

Choosing a topic

Choosing a topic is a critical step in writing a research paper! What makes this so important is that you want to carefully decide on a topic that interests you.  If you take this advice to heart, then the work of research does not seem like work.  It is fun.

Consider this a good time to think about the subjects you are already interested in or the subjects about which you would like to learn more. Brainstorm a list of possible topics you might like to write about.  The earlier you begin this process, the better.

To add to your list of topics, begin searching the web looking at online news sources, encyclopedias and other websites to generate more ideas. Remember, you want to find a topic that interests you!  Select a topic that is narrow enough that you are not overwhelmed by all of the information available and broad enough to effectively cover the topic (this balance comes with practice, so give it some time).  An example: Picasso’s Blue Period (narrow topic) vs. historical paintings (broad topic).

There are some excellent resources that discuss the research process and have some suggestions for choosing possible research topics. Contact Buffy, the Reference Librarian at the Community Library, if you need help choosing a research topic.

[Click on the link below and review the article on choosing a topic.]

Choosing a Topic

If you are assigned a topic, try to find an aspect of it which includes some of your favorite interests.


Narrow your focus and turn your topic into a question

As a natural outcome of the research process, you will continue to refine your topic over time.   Once you have selected a topic, it is time to begin this focusing process.  Here are some ways in which you can think about your topic and begin narrowing its scope.

[Click on these three links below to learn more about how to narrow your chosen topic and formulate a research question.]


Usually the best research questions are “How?” or “Why?,” but you also need to think carefully about “Who?,” “What?,” “Where?,” and “When?” during this exploring process. Thinking about your topic in this way will help narrow the focus as well as help you define some key search terms.

Consider narrowing your topic by thinking about a certain time period on which you would like to focus; a certain region, country, etc. that is impacted by your topic; or a certain group of people (e.g. teenagers, college students, women) who are affected.

As you explore your topic, continue to make note of possible keywords you could use later when searching for information sources. Look for words used to describe your topic and also look for people, places, and events related to your topic.  (Keep this list of key terms as a separate list.)

This could also be a great time to write out what you already know about your topic. You can begin to identify gaps in your understanding; furthermore, you may even surprise yourself with how much you know.  This type of free writing can also be helpful because it gets you composing in your own words early on in the research process, and it can help ease some of the anxiety that naturally occurs for anyone working on a research project.

Eventually a thesis statement (what you will need to prove in your paper) will emerge out of your research, but don’t worry too much about that now. Later in this guide, we will define a thesis statement more clearly.


Choosing your search terms

Now that you have narrowed your topic and developed a possible research question, you are ready to begin finding information sources (answers to your research question). Look carefully at your research question and circle the main ideas.  You are looking for keywords and key concepts that describe your narrowed topic. Gather and collect as many keywords as you can.  This will significantly help you to begin your research.  Also consider using a thesaurus to help you think of possible similar terms for your keywords.

[Click on the links below to learn how to choose keywords in your search for information resources.]


Evaluating information resources

As you are researching your topic, you will want to be cautious about finding and using reliable and credible information. Regardless of the types of sources that you use, it is always a good idea to verify their credibility; but it is especially important when using sources you have found on the Web to carefully evaluate them before using them in your research.

[The link below will give you some pointers on how to best accomplish this evaluation.]

Evaluating information found on the Web

Remember, it is okay to use Wikipedia to learn more about your topic, but do not use it as a source that you cite in your paper. Wikipedia is good for broadening your knowledge base on your topic for your own purpose, but not a good source for a research paper.

Before moving on to learn an eight-step research process, here are some guidelines on note taking.


Taking notes

This section was adapted from Research Papers for Dummies by Geraldine Woods.

Note taking from the information resources you find is an essential component of the research process. Your sources will help you formulate an argument, document your evidence in order to prove your thesis statement, and find examples to support your information in your paper.  You will do this by using quotes from experts, statistics, and examples you come across in your reading.  This section is meant to help you develop an effective way to take notes as you research your topic.

To begin, keep a master list of all of your sources in one document and do this from the beginning of your research project.

  1. Keep a master list of your sources. Before writing any notes, take down the citation information you will need to locate the item again. It is also helpful to include the page numbers from which you are working for ease with citations later.

Here are 10 citation tools you can choose from to help you keep track of your sources.

The next step is to code each information source for quicker documentation and easier retrieval.

  1. Code each information resource.Give each new information source a code, for example: A1, A2, etc. for articles; B1, B2, etc. for books, V1, V2, etc. for videos; I1, I2, etc. for interviews, etc.As you take notes from a source, remember to use the code you assigned that source from your master list!

In the beginning of the research process, as you do general reading and start to learn more about your topic, you will want to record the citation information of possibly useful resources so that you can return to them again later, if needed. However, you will not begin taking notes at this point.  Rather, you will write a short description of what is covered in the resource instead.  In other words, you will create a mini index.  This is done to evaluate whether the source is one which is useful and will supply beneficial information.

For example, if you are reviewing a book that includes a small section about your topic, you will want to only write a brief description of what is covered in that section and where to find it (just like the index in the back of a book).
B1 – pgs. 150-155 – A history and description of Project Gutenberg; good bibliography

Another example, if you are reviewing a book about your topic (or a longer article), you may want to write a brief description of what is covered in each chapter of the book (or each subheading of the article). Below is an example of notes taken from a book about searching the Web.

  • B1 – Ch 1 – History of the Internet, includes a timeline (1957-2011), pgs. 34-45
  • B1 – Ch 2 – Description of Web 2.0 and social networking, pgs. 48-54
  • B1 – Ch 3 – Web finding tools: general web directories, web search engines, specialized directories (descriptions and when to use), pgs. 59-72.

[The “B1” refers to the code given to the resource from the master list and “Ch 1” refers to Chapter One of that source.]

Note taking is an interactive activity. It isn’t simply reading through a resource and highlighting (or cutting and pasting) as you go.  Instead you will want to engage with the ideas in a source and formulate your own questions and ideas.  Use a combination of indexing and highlighting to be an effective note taker.

How to take notes: As you are going through your sources, if you are reading from a book or an article that can’t be highlighted, use mini Post-it notes to mark the information you want to record and then go back and write up that information after finishing a chapter or the article.


If you are reading from a book or article that can be written on, highlight the information you want to record as you go. (Again, use the strategy of reading a chapter or an article at a time and then typing up your notes.)  You can also copy and paste into your notes information you want to record from digital resources, just don’t forget to include the code you assigned each resource from your master list of sources.


To avoid the risk of plagiarizing a source, use your own words when taking notes or use key phrases instead of full sentences.


Also read below to learn about when it is best to summarize, paraphrase or quote from a source. Taking the time to do this type of work now will save you in the long run.  The more time you spend writing about your topic using your own words, the better.


Before moving on, take a minute to learn about when it is best to summarize, paraphrase, or quote a source by reading this short article. To help you avoid plagiarism, learn how to paraphrase using your own words.


What to take notes on: After you have narrowed your topic, you will want to begin taking focused notes on only those sections that pertain to your narrowed topic.


For example, if you decide you would like to write about Pablo Picasso’s blue period, you would focus your note taking only on those paintings. Your notes could include information about Picasso’s life during this period, details about his painting style during this period, and even information about his paintings during this period.  Here are some notes from an article about Picasso’s blue period.


A1 – p. 33 – Picasso’s blue period 1901 – 1904

A1 – p. 33 – The blue period paintings are characterized blue or blue and green shades of color and only occasionally include warmer colors.

A1 – p. 33 – Picasso’s paintings from this time period are very popular, but during his lifetime he had a hard time selling them.

A1 – p. 33 – Prostitutes, beggars and drunks are common subjects.

A1 – p. 34 – Picasso sank into a severe depression.


[Notice how you will create a separate entry for each idea, fact, or quotation. This will make it easier for you later when you want to move these notes around, group them in a different way, or arrange them in a different order.]


After you have developed your thesis, your notes will become even more focused. At this point you will only record information or ideas that help you prove your thesis.  (Although, you will also want to take notes on ideas that conflict with your thesis so that you can refute them in your paper later).  You can probably see how the index of sources you created earlier in your research could really help you at this point.

Another benefit of using this highlighting and indexing strategy is that it gets you thinking about your information resources early on and writing about them in your own words. These steps take work, but it will save you time in the end.  Especially when you are in the midst of writing your paper and you need that one essential piece of information you read, but can’t quite remember where . . . .  Taking good notes and including page numbers will help you avoid this problem.


Finding information resources

The following is an eight-step research strategy recommended in The Elements of Library Research by Mary George.

1 – Begin your research strategy by reading general background information on your topic.

Read background information on your topic [Click on the link to learn more.]

To locate resources for background reading, use your chosen keywords and their synonyms to search online and via the Library catalog. [Tip: As you do your review of an information source, check the bibliography for other sources on your topic.]

2 – As you learn more about your topic, continue to add to your list of possible search terms. These search terms could include any of the following: other keywords used by researchers to describe your topic; library book titles, authors and call numbers; subject headings; major events and dates; scholarly journal titles; publishers that specialize in your topic; and related organizations (institutions, associations, societies or government agencies).

3 – Finding books – use the catalogs below to search for specific titles listed in the bibliographies at the end of relevant articles and books you discovered in your background reading.

When you find a title, take time to also review the catalog record for designated subject headings (see example below). Click on the subject heading links to find other resources categorized under these same headings.  Make note of the citation information for any of the resources that look pertinent to your topic and keep a list of the relevant call numbers as you move through this process.


4 – Use the call numbers you collected in step three to carefully browse the library’s shelves in these sections for other possible resources on your topic.

5 – Finding articles – search both general and relevant subject-specific databases to find articles on your topic.

[Go slowly here. Look for an advanced search option within the database you are using and begin trying combinations of different keywords.  Alternate searches will give you different results so be patient and try a variety of searches before you move on.  If you are not generating enough results, you can try changing the order of your keywords or try searching for keywords in different fields, such as the title or subject fields (or a combination of both).  See the examples below.]




[You can also try using OR to search with synonyms. See the example below.]


[If you are generating too many search results, limit your results to full text articles, peer-reviewed journals, and/or current publication dates. These search filters will generally be made available in most research databases.]


6 – Quickly review the resources you have gathered up to this point to determine if they could be useful in answering your research question, or if they could lead to other resources. Remember to check the table of contents and the index in the back of books and read the chapters that seem most pertinent to your topic.  For articles, read through the headings to look for sections that may be related to your topic.  This review process takes a little time to get used to, but keep at it.  You will get better with practice.  [Refer to the section on note taking again, if needed.]

7 – Now, look for any additional information resources you found in step six. As you learn more about your topic, you will eventually begin to see a way to develop your thesis and build a convincing argument.

[A thesis statement is the central argument of your paper spelled out in one or two sentences. It is the answer to your research question.  It is your perspective on your research project and where you show how you intend to prove something that is not obvious.  You can learn more about developing a thesis statement by reading this article.   And you can read this article for questions to keep in mind as you think about your thesis.]

8 – If necessary, repeat steps three through seven. You will want to keep going through these eight steps and review resources until your thesis starts to become apparent.

[Identifying experts on your topic could be helpful, too. You might consider interviewing and possibly quoting them in your paper.  Contact an author, teacher, museum curator, or someone else you have learned about during your research process.  To help you prepare for the interview, read “How to Interview an Expert without Looking Like an Idiot”.


Contact Buffy, the Reference Librarian at the Community Library, if you need help researching your topic or if you have any other questions.

Writing the paper

Source for this section of the paper: Heather Voss, English teacher.

If you have followed these steps offered in this guide, you have written quite a bit so far about your topic. Now we will focus on the actual writing of the paper itself.  But first you may experience writer’s block.  Even prolific authors such as Steinbeck occasionally faced this challenge.

“When I face the desolate impossibility of writing five hundred pages, a sick sense of failure falls on me and I know I can never do it. This happens every time.  Then gradually I write one page and then another.  One day’s work is all I can permit myself to contemplate and I eliminate the possibility of ever finishing.” –John Steinbeck

Hopefully, with the note taking you have done this far, you won’t experience writer’s block. But all writers have trouble with it sometimes, and getting stuck on a project is a normal part of the writing process.  Luckily, there are some helpful ways to deal with writer’s block.

Beginning can be the hardest step, so just get something down in writing. Don’t edit yourself too much as you are working on your first draft.  Judging your work in the beginning stages can slow your writing down and even be discouraging.  The poet William Stafford says, “There is no such thing as writer’s block for writers whose standards are low enough.”  Use this advice in the positive light and write something – even if it is truly awful.

You might also try verbally explaining your ideas to someone in order to begin. This strategy can really help you get started.  Or take a walk.  This can get the juices flowing and help you approach your writing with a fresh perspective.  Just be careful not to use this suggestion as a way to procrastinate.

Read this article (“Overcoming Writer’s Block”) for more suggestions on overcoming writer’s block. And, for help with procrastination you might also try reading The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield.


Writing an outline

Writing an outline before you begin to write your first draft will help you improve the quality and organization of your paper. An outline is a road map.  Just as you need a map to take you to your points of interest on a vacation, you also need an outline to help you follow your points in your paper in a logical way.  In an outline you will flesh out the main and supporting points of your paper.  This is also a great time to think about the flow of your argument and to check your transitions.

To begin, put your thesis statement—the central argument, the answer to your research question—at the top of your outline, then list all of your main points, their sub-points and so on. You should have three to seven ideas to support your thesis in the paper.  If you have less than three main points, you do not have enough evidence to make your argument.  On the other hand, if you have more than seven, your paper is probably not focused enough and your paper might seem too vague.

For a research paper, you also need a section where you refute the opposing side. Write your outline with these main points and evidence in mind.  Also ask yourself while you are writing your outline, “Does one idea logically follow the idea before it?”  That is, “Does your paper flow logically?” If it does not, then consider reordering or removing the point.  Remember, writing an outline is your road map for your paper, so please don’t skip this step.

Here is some more help as you work through the outlining process.

Now on to writing the paper . . .

As you write your paper, think of your reader as someone who is educated but does not know as much as you do about your topic. Keeping this type of reader in mind as you write will help you to write more clearly and carefully about your topic.  It will also remind you to explain and describe your ideas in a simple but clear and organized way.

[Here is a detailed guide you can refer to while writing the paper.]


Writing the paper’s introduction

Write the introduction to your paper last. In the introduction you will want to entice your reader to read your work, cover the main points of your paper and include background information.  After you have written your paper it is much easier to articulate these main points, so save this part until last.

When writing the introduction, it is important to capture the interest of your reader and explain the purpose of your paper. Capturing the interest of your reader can be accomplished with a hook – which is a specific example, story or problem that introduces your topic and provides relevant background information for the reader.  (If you are using a problem for your hook, then include an example that illustrates the problem in the introduction.)  The purpose of your paper is conveyed through your thesis statement.


Writing the body of the paper

The body of the paper is the easy part of your paper to write now that you have an outline. It is where you tell your readers about your idea and support this idea with reasons and evidence.

Always keep your audience in mind as you are writing the paper. Use many examples and make your points as clear as you possibly can.  Remember, you are trying to convey your idea to your readers in a way that interests them and is convincing.

Throughout the research process you have been thinking and writing a lot about your topic. Now is the time that you will benefit from all of that thought and writing.  In this main section of the paper, you will:

  • Explain to your reader your perspective on your topic
  • Give the reasons for that opinion
  • Provide the evidence that supports your case
  • Include the opposing viewpoints
  • Refute those opposing viewpoints

Your outline is your road map as you write. To begin, write out your answer to your research question – your thesis statement (remember you are saving your introduction until the end, so don’t worry about that now).  Now think in paragraphs.  Write about your first main point that supports your thesis.  To do this, include a transition sentence and then write your first reason for answering your research question the way you did.  Then include evidence for that reason.  This evidence can be a fact, an example, quote from an expert, or a comparison that you have learned from your research.  Now you will need to explain how this evidence fits into your thesis.

Take time to read this article on writing transitions and here is a quick guide to help you think of transitional words and phrases as you are writing.

Continue on to your second main point and do the same as you did above. Write out a transition sentence and then include your second main point that supports your thesis and include the evidence for that reason, again gained from your research.  Finally, explain how that evidence fits into your thesis.  Continue using this template for each of the main points you want to cover in your paper.

After writing out the three to seven main reasons that support your thesis, you will want to include the main opposing viewpoints to your topic. This refutation should include, at most, only two main points.  (You do not want to include too many arguments against your thesis because this can weaken your argument.  Instead, look for the main points against your argument and try to combine them.)  Then refute these claims.

Again, thinking in paragraphs, write a transition and an opposing viewpoint to your claim – what people might argue against your particular thesis. Using evidence from your research explain why they are wrong and then explain how that evidence fits into your thesis or proves the opposition wrong.

Now it is time to go back and write your introduction to the paper. See the section above for more details.


Writing the conclusion of the paper

To write the conclusion of your paper, you will want to include a transition sentence and then sum up the strongest points of your argument. In a thoughtful and innovative way, sum up the main points of your argument and leave the reader with a call-to-action.  This final punch can be something simple, but you want to leave your reader with the idea that your paper is important and they should take some kind of action because of its importance.  (Use these videos to help edit your paper for clarity and conciseness.)

Here is a completed research paper as an example.

Buffy McDonald is a Reference Librarian at the Community Library.