Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Writing 101: Learn How to Research

I've made no secret of the fact that I think strong research is the cornerstone of any book. I've written about map-making, and learning about your setting, and making an effort to get details that bring added realism to books. 

But I've never told you how to do it. Learn how to research to use your writing time efficiently, and to avoid gathering a bunch of facts that aren't actually true. 

How to Research Anything

Thanks to the Internet, there's pretty much no question you can't answer -- and thanks to my varied writing style and somewhat morbid curiosity, I know that to be true. I once went on an odyssey to learn about writing tools during the 1800s (because who knows when the pen was invented, right off the top of their head?), so I've already been through every painful research experience you might imagine. 
  • Phrasing. Obviously your first stop is your favorite search engine, but once you get there things can start to get out of control pretty quickly. It's really hard to get too specific when you're researching a particular period of history, setting or fact. Start out extremely specific, and become more general if you're not finding what you need. You might need to enter the same information in multiple ways in order to find a good mix of sites that promise to offer the information you need. Open up a bunch of sites; don't go through them one-by-one and jump back and forth between new sites and the search engine. Load up those tabs until you've got quite a few, and then keep going with your research. 
  • Consider the source. You can't be too picky when you're researching, either. Information you get from the History Channel website is more valuable than information gathered from Bob's Page, even if the data is identical. Why? Because Bob might not tell you where he'd getting his information; the History Channel will cite their sources. Look for citations, because those websites can be taken a bit more seriously than stuff you find on Becky's Blog. University websites, well-known magazines, not-for-profit TV stations (like PBS) and encyclopedias are all extremely trustworthy, and you can generally trust the information you find here...but not enough to use a single source.
  • Multiple sources. It's not a fact unless you can find the same information on multiple sources. If you're researching information about the types of trees that grow in the northwest United States, for example, you can't just use the Arbor Day website and call it a day. You also need to go to National Geographic, the World Almanac and other sites that might offer the same information. It's not a fact unless more than one source is reporting it - remember that. The rule is three. If you can find three sources that say oak trees grow in Washington, then you can add oak trees to your book. I personally have used only two sources before, but only in cases where both sources are impeccable (encyclopedias, for example).
  • Wikipedia is not a source. The information in Wikipedia is always suspect. If comedians on television can convince their fans to go on Wikipedia and change facts (and I know it happens because I've participated), then you can't use Wikipedia. At least, not the information. Wikipedia does often include a list of links with each entry, and this is a good place to look for sources if search engines aren't yielding anything useful.
  • Finding. That sounds time-consuming. And make no mistake, doing a lot of solid researching can seriously take a chunk out of your time. Speed up the process by using the built-in search functions you've already got. Go to the Edit menu in your browser toolbar and type in a specific word or phrase. Simply search for this word or phrase on the websites you're checking, instead of reading massive blocks of text to find the little nuggets of data you're after. 
  • Keeping track. You're not doing yourself any good unless you're actually taking notes when you're researching. I like to keep notepad open so I can copy and paste text from Internet pages without copying any weird code along with it. If you paste your stuff directly into a word processing program, you're running the risk of crashing and you're going to wind up with a multi-colored document that looks like a font parade. Once you've got your information copied, you can simply weed out the extraneous stuff you don't need and create readable notes.
When you know how to research, there's nothing you can't find out. How do police officers dust for fingerprints? How are court trials conducted? How long does it take to suffocate someone to death? If I can find answers to questions like this (I'm a mystery writer, so forgive the weirdness of those queries), you can definitely learn about vegetation, world history, what type of fish swim in that river and whether or not there was an earthquake in California in July 1983. Accurate facts and rich detail will only improve your story...and you can never improve your story too much.

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  1. As I am still working on research for the series I am writing, this is super helpful and couldn't have come at a better time.

  2. Awesome! I'm glad you found some useful information.