WiHM 12: Field Notes, what are they?

Field Notes, what are they?
By: Florence B. Caghens

Writing field notes is a good habit to get into. All you need is a notebook and a pen. You can take it with you anywhere, and write in it anywhere.

When I take field notes, I make a quick note of the date, time, and location. Over time this has developed into a quick shorthand. E.G. 4/fe/18.am.b’t. Which translates to the morning of the 4th of February 2018 in Belfast.

This can help when you look back on them. To expand on the field note in question. It can take you back to the time when you first wrote that field note. Which can help jog your memory, which in turn helps to expand on the field note.

Field notes can literally be anything. Do not be put off by the name, they are just quick observational notes. Notice how the light shines through a window, and lights on something? Write that down. When you look back on it, what is the light? What is the source of the light?

Overhear a piece of dialogue? Write that down. When you look back at it, who said those words? Why were they said?

Notice how someone is behaving? Write that down. When you look back at it, why was that person behaving in that way? What prompted them to do so?

See someone wearing an outfit, that makes you think? Write that down. When you look back at it, why are they wearing that outfit? What makes it unusual? Why does it stand out?

If you also get into the habit of writing lists for shopping etc, in a book. Then you also double that book for writing field notes in. No-one passes any remarks to someone writing in a book, or striking out in a book, when you are out. Trust me on this, this is something I do. No-one cares.

You could also go as far, as to use those old lists, as part of your field notes. An old shopping list for example can make excellent field notes. One of my lists, which I keep as field notes, reads 11/Ja- p.o./s.l./p.r/b.k – f.s.

Yes, I do write my shopping lists like that. I know what it means, but the point of me sharing that is, that it can also be interpreted in other ways. What do those abbreviations mean? What if they meant something other than a boring shopping list?

Of course, don’t have to abbreviate your field notes like I do. The point of field notes is that they are quick observational notes. Quick to write, and open to interpretation. I always have pocket-sized notebooks in my bag, and in my pockets. Along with at least one pen, if not more. You always think when you see something of interest or overhear something, you will remember. You won’t remember! This is where field notes come into their own. They are like an aid to your memory. If you have ever thought, “that person, that I saw a few years ago, they were wearing an interesting outfit… what was it?” No matter how hard you think, you can’t recall that memory. Just think how useful it would be if you had written it down? Similar to an overhead piece of dialogue.

That is why I love field notes, it is why I started writing them over twenty years ago. It is why I still write them now, and why I encourage you to start keeping them. Even if you are not a writer, they can help you to become more observant of the world around you.

Florence B. Caghens


Florence B. Caghens lives in rural Northern Ireland, and is owned by two cats.  In an attempt to silence the demons, angels, and humans who talk to her, she writes their stories. 

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1 Response

  1. Willow Croft says:

    This is a great suggestion…and timely! I’ve been meaning to dig out my journals from one of the storage boxes. Thanks for sharing, Florence B. Caghens!