Thursday, October 14, 2010

Getting Unstuck with Research

When you get stuck in your writing, sometimes researching your subject or new ideas is the best way to get unstuck. In my office I have shelves full of books that help me research. I have books on birds, mammals, horses, plants, trees, gardening, castles, medieval life, comedy, body language, baby names and more. I also have an assortment of encyclopedias, visual dictionaries, rhyming dictionaries, reverse dictionaries, regular dictionaries, thesauri and atlases. While early in my writing career I used these books extensively, my use of them has become less frequent with the rise of the Internet.

The Internet is a treasure trove of knowledge that allows you to do research in ways unimaginable years ago. If I need a quick answer, I simply Google it. Want to know the flight speed of an African swallow? Google it. Need to know the fashion trends or street slang of today, the sixties, or the 1300s? Google it. If I’m unsure of the correct meaning of a word, it’s often faster to Google the word than to look it up in my dictionary. Google and the Internet can take you places that you’ve never been before, giving you insights and ideas that bring color and detail to your stories.

While Google can quickly direct you to multiple sites with the information you need, there are a number of sites you might want to bookmark (aka make favorites) so you can easily visit them as needed. Wikipedia is one these, providing a virtual online encyclopedia with quick access to basic information in often easy-to-understand language on over 3 millions subjects. But be careful, some information in Wikipedia is not always accurate. So, before you rely on it, verify the information from another source.

Other favorite sites include, the social security administration popular baby names site, which can help you in naming your characters. It lets you see the popularity of the top 20 to a 1,000 boys and girls names for every year from 1879 to the present. provides you online field guides. The CIA World Factbook provides detailed information on almost every country in the world such as population, ethnic groups, native languages spoken, economic conditions and factors, political systems, communication infrastructure, international relationships and more.

As great as the Internet is as a research resource, don’t let it make you lazy. There’s nothing like experiencing a setting or getting ideas first hand. Talking to someone who has actually experienced something that you’re writing about can deliver much more valuable insight than anything you can get off the Internet. Researching a location online doesn’t expose you to the sights, sounds, smells, and attitudes that you get walking the streets, back alleys, and dirt paths of the place itself.

Still, there are times when the Internet becomes your next best option. For example, this past summer I visited D.C. for a book I’m working on. Unfortunately, in the week I was there I couldn’t visit all the places I needed to get the details, insights and imagery I needed for my book. In fact, there are places that I didn’t know that I needed to visit until after I got home and continued with my writing. Google Images lets me see the sights that I didn’t have a chance to visit. Google Maps makes it easier for me to get a feel for the layout of the city. But one of the coolest tools, is the street view that Google Maps provides, letting me virtually travel down any street in Washington D.C. to see its people, shops, parks, monuments, and more. If only it had a Google Smell and Google Sound, then I’d be that much closer to actually being there.

What are the most valuable research tools you use in your writing?


  1. I love doing the research. My problem is I don't want to stop and actually start writing.

  2. Lois, I love doing research too, but I love writing more. So often I wish I could hurry the research along faster so I can get back to my writing.

  3. A great tool I recently found is Yahoo Answers. You can ask really weird questions and people actually take them seriously and answer them (usually). I was able to come up with a key piece of info on the book I'm working on now.

    But again, you can get caught up in these kinds of sites if you let yourself.

  4. Urban Dictionary ( Whenever I'm confounded by contemporary culture, I find the answer here, although sometimes I have to sort through several goofball definitions.

    What would really be helpful is a search engine just for forums. When conventional resources fail, the best source of advice is often a forum filled with anonymous people who dedicate their lives to researching one particular topic.


  5. Dave,

    I've used a few times as well, and it is a good source for current street slang, but for my tastes it often goes too deep into the edgy side of contemporary culture with profanity and vulgarity. So, I'll usually stay away from that one and turn to other slang dictionaries depending on the need of the characters I'm creating.

    I agree with you that forums on specific topics are also great resources since the people involved in them often have real life experience and insight into the topic at hand.