As a teaching assistant, I answered a lot of questions from students on a daily basis. One of the questions asked most frequently was, “How do I find information on _________.”
As an author, I hear the same question in its many varied forms. How did I find this, where did I find that, can I recommend this or that? Whether you’re a college student or a writer, research can be a daunting task. Research can also be just as critical.
Obviously, writers have a little leeway withcreative license that a grad student isn’t going to have, but–and this is a big but–readers notice when the details aren’t quite right. If your story is set in the south, readers will expect you to have a good grasp of southern living. If your story is set in 1840 England, your characters probably aren’t going to be wearing bikinis and lounging around poolside. If Pearl Harbor was attacked in June instead of December in your novel, you’d better have a darn good explanation for the change.
I could go on, but you get the point. Details are important, which means research is important. But where do you start? At this point, we all know how to use Google, or visit the local library, but research can be a little more complicated than that, especially when it comes to finding accurate information that suits your purposes.
That said, the research process is the same whether you’re a student or a writer. If you keep the following rules in mind, undertaking the task doesn’t have to be as frightening as it sounds.
1. Identify what you need to know – Not sure exactly what you need to research? Take notes. Highlight information you’re not positive about while you write (or edit), so you can go back later to tweak the details if necessary.
2. Narrow your subject – Too much of something can be a bad thing. There are thousands upon thousands of resources out there, and it can be overwhelming to wade through all of that information if you don’t need it. If you’re looking for information on Pearl Harbor in a specific period, start there (ie: Pearl Harbor in 1953). If you can’t find what you’re looking for that way, broaden the search (Pearl Harbor 1950s, etc).
3. Use key terms – Just because you’d search one way, doesn’t mean everyone else does. Keep that in mind when you’re using a search engine, and try different terms. For teen drinking, for instance, you might have teens & alcohol, alcohol abuse & youth, and alcoholism in youth each pull up results the other terms did not. If your first key term doesn’t work, try another. Not sure what other key terms might be used? Try something like the Google AdWords Keyword Tool. It will give you a list of popular search terms related to your subject.
4. Save your research – There is nothing more frustrating than finding a great resource only to lose it when you’re ready to start writing or editing. And remember, just because a website is available today, doesn’t mean it will be next week. If you find something you want to go back to later, don’t just bookmark it. Print or save a copy, and back up the information. Make notes on books you need to look at, or articles you want to read. Find a system that works for you, and use it.
5. Evaluate your resources – If you went to college, you probably perfected the art of bs’ing your way through papers. Remember that other people did, too. Just because a website (or book) says something, doesn’t mean it’s true. Don’t believe Joe’s word that he’s an expert in forensic anthropology just because he sounds like he knows what he’s talking about. Double check the information against other sources before using it because, again, readers will notice if you’re wrong. The last thing you want is Sandy to write an Amazon review telling everyone how horrible your book is because your research was utter crap and is nowhere close to accurate.
6. Understand primary and secondary resources – If Bob says something and Tom quotes it, Bob is the primary resource, and Tom is the secondary. Don’t just assume Tom quoted Bob reliably. Check out the primary source yourself to confirm the authenticity of the information before you use it.
7. Steer clear of biased resources – These are resources published with an agenda. For instance, if I’m trying to convince you Red Bull is healthy, chances are everything I say is going to support that opinion. That doesn’t make it true. As with secondary resources, things can be taken out of context to support my point. Always be mindful of that, and remember that your readers will be, too.
8. Ask for help – If you’re not sure if a resource is accurate or not, ask for help. Fellow authors, professionals, and hobbyists are a great source of information. That’s not to say you should always take their word as fact. We can be wrong, too. But at the very least, you’ll walk away with an idea of where to start (or whom to avoid in the future).
9. Not all information is created equal – While websites like Wikipedia, Gather, Associated Content, and Suite101 can be a great way to locate initial information, you have to remember anyone can edit Wikipedia, and you don’t have to be an expert or have the credentials to write for these other sites, either. This means the information may or may not be accurate. In academia, these resources are not permitted by most professors for this very reason. Fiction writing is a little more lenient, but if you’re going to use these websites, be aware of the realities and double check the information before taking it as gospel.
10. Cite, Cite, Cite – If you didn’t say it, don’t use it (plagiarism is not okay). If you do use it (say you quote Byron), cite it (it takes all of thirty seconds to find a way to work in Byron’s name into dialogue). If John down the street taught you everything you know about drug trafficking, acknowledge him, whether that’s an official acknowledgement in the book, a shout-out on your blog, or a plate of cookies and a thank you note. It’s bad form to take all the credit for something you had help with.
Need more help?
I’ve compiled a list of resources I’ve found helpful when it comes to writing. Hopefully these resources will be as valuable to you as they have been to me.
- · Query Tracker – allows you to track query and submissions, as well as offers a database of publishing houses and literary agents.
- · Passionate Pen Resources – everything from romance agent listings to submission checklists.
- · All About Romance – everything from reviews to articles by authors to history and travel information.
- · Social Networks for Writers – a list of social networking sites designed specifically for writers. Many have group features, etc. that can be a huge help in networking with others.
- · Every Writer’s Resource – a website with everything from articles and interviews to lists, links, addresses for submissions, etc.
- · Charlotte Dillon’s Resources for Writers – a huge collection of writing related resources including sample query and submission letters, articles, links, and more. This is geared for romance writers, but many of these resources are great for any current or aspiring writer.
- · YALitChat – an online community dedicated to everything YA. You can find groups, resources, and more here.
- · Publishers Weekly – publishing news and more.
- · Writer’s Digest – news, articles, resources, and more.
- · Peerage from the Regency Period – everything you might ever want to know about titles, behaviors, etc. on the peerage in Britain during the regency period.
- · The Regency Collection – everything you might need to know about the Regency period from modes of transportation to coaching inns, etc.
- · The Napoleon Series – everything you might ever need to know about Napoleon and the Napoleonic Wars, including a plethora of valuable information on the War of 1812.
- · English History – this site covers 1760 to 1850, and has quite a few scholarly and topic papers (i.e., economic affairs and popular movements of the time) on the George III and Peel Era.
- · Channel 4 History Programming – television programming on various historical items of interest. Some programs are available to watch online.
- · Historical Maps – a collection of historical maps of the world.
- · Internet Legal Resources – Washington University’s list of legal resources includes everything from the best sites for research to United States law, etc.
- · LexOne Community – free database of case law from Lexis Nexis, includes case law, and SCOTUS opinions from 1791 onward.
- · Federal Rules of Evidence – Cornell University’s copy of the Federal Rules of Evidence
- · Legal Information Institute – Cornell University’s open access database to all things legal.
- · FDsys – the US Government’s database. This contains information on all three branches of government, as well as Congressional bills, hearings, and reports, and the United State Code from any given year.
- · The Crime Library – articles on crimes, crime figures, etc. Includes a lot of information of serial killers, mobsters, high profile crimes, etc.
Mythology, Paranormal, and Creature Resources
- · Mythical Creatures Guide – a guide to mythical creatures and beasts from around the world.
- · Encyclopedia Mythica – encyclopedia of mythology, covering everything from Norse to Greek mythology.
- · Demons, Monsters, Etc – everything you might ever need to know on demons and monsters, including names, myths, etc.
- · Paranormal Library – the largest online library of paranormal information, including ghosts, phenomena, etc.
- · FolkTexts – folklore, fairy tales, mythology, and more.
- · MagicTails – a large library of creation myths and related mythology from around the world.
Royalty Free Images and Music
- · DreamsTime – Royalty free images, including a large database of RF images you can use free of charge.
- · Danosongs – Royalty free music from DanoSongs. You can use the music here for free.
- · Incompotech – Royalty free music from Kevin MacLeod. You can use his music for free.
- · Audio Archive – a large library of royalty free audio, video, music, images, etc.
- · Shutterstock – millions of stock photos, etc. Can be obtained and used for a fee. Pay per image, etc.
- · Castles and Stately Homes – an image collection of castles and estates in England.
- · Leap Year Calculator – find out what was/will be a leap year.
- · Moon Phases – find the phase of the moon for any date from 1800-2199.
Need more help? Check with your critique partners and fellow authors. Chances are they have their own favorite research sites and books that will be beneficial to you as well. And remember, while there is a lot of great information available online, one of the most valuable resources you have at your disposal is your local library.
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A.K. Morgen, or Ayden, lives in Little Rock, Arkansas with her real life hero, their daughter, two dogs, and her demonic cat. She has a graduate degree in Criminal Justice and Law, and grand plans to save the world someday.
Ayden wrote her first story at the age of seven, and published her first book locally at the age of twelve. She’s written in a variety of genres since, and has published numerous poems and research articles. Her boss loves to put her writing skills to use by having her write procedure and operations manuals for her day job as a volunteer coordinator for the Ronald McDonald House Charities.
Ayden’s debut young adult novel, Fade, will be released later this year from Curiosity Quills Press. You can learn more about her and her writing at: http://akmorgen.com