Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Just The Facts Ma'am

“Get the facts, or the facts will get you. And when you get them, get them right, or they will get you wrong.” Dr. Thomas Fuller

Research is something writers must do whether they enjoy it or consider it a necessary evil. I’m not all that fond of research but I suspect it’s because I don’t know how to go about it efficiently. When I require information I turn to the handiest source, the Internet, for most of my research. Google is my friend. There are other search engines and if you have a different favorite please leave a comment.

I’m sitting in front of the computer, I’ve chosen a search engine and I know what information I need, this is where I run into problems. I tend to type in wordy questions, long phrases and general word associations. Then I have to sift through the reams of general information to get what I need. What I should be doing is typing in key words, specific phrases, synonyms and spelling variations. Once the first list of websites comes up I can skim the list and pick up more key words and phrases and add them to my search request. In a perfect world I would also be switching between search engines and directories.

My search has yielded a number of possible sites and I’ve found useful data. I need to remember to use more than one source, to use a range of sources: newspaper articles, blogs and special interest sites to name a few. I skim through the information to see if it’s what I need. I cross-reference. Just because it’s on the net doesn’t make it true.

Here are some of the sites I have found useful.

How Stuff Works: You have a question? Ask this site. This is going to sounds a tad morbid but I needed to know what would happen to a decomposing body so I typed in ‘the dying process’ and now I know. Different types of articles in relation to the search will come up. I also peeked at the article ‘Is There a Worst Way to Die? Very informative but not cheery.

Writers Free Reference: This site lists links for a wide variety of information from maps to lists of literary agents listed by genre. What to read one of Aesop’s Fables, go here for the link.

Guide to Grammar: This is one I should spend a lot more time on then I do. It is an excellent grammar resource. I recently spent time on ‘Plague Words and Phrases’.

OneLook Dictionary Search: Use this site to browse through many different dictionaries.

Fact Monster: Don’t laugh but this is one of my new favorites. It’s a kid’s site and is operated by the good people at It explains how things work in terms I can understand. Lots of times I require only some basic information, I don’t need a whole truckload of technical terms and explanations and this site suits this purpose.

The Canadian Criminal Code: A good place to look up frequently accessed laws. If your story takes place on Canadian soil and involves criminal activity, make sure you are following Canadian police procedure.

A Look Inside Prison: I used this site while doing research on gang profiles. Check the left hand side for all kinds of information on life behind bars.

Slang: I’m always on the look out for a good slang dictionary. is one I’ve come across but if anyone else has a favorite please share.

Finally I created an account on Delicious, one of the social bookmarking sites. I’ve stored, organized and tagged those sites I deem useful to my life and my writing and bookmarked them. There are not yet marked for public viewing.

There are countless other ways to do research but the Internet works for me. You could ask a living, breathing expert, which I’m working up the nerve to do. You could go to the library. Go on a trip.

What is your favorite way to do research? What source does the majority of your research come from? Do you enjoy research? Care to share your favorite research sites?


Helena said...

Flash! I want to interrupt this comment to mention that there were some comments later in the day yesterday, and I did respond to everyone after I got home from the city, so you might want to go back for a peek.

Now for today:
What an excellent topic to tackle, Karen! You would make a great librarian.

I love research which I guess was definitely reflected in my career choice (librarian). What I find difficult now is keeping up with all the sources. While the internet has made some things easier, it is harder to keep tabs on the best sources. You're right about being careful about the validity of the info you get on the net. Did anyone notice the study out this week on first year university students? Faculty members and librarians are disconcerted at their reliance on the internet in that their research is not detailed and accurate enough.

If you want to be sure of your sources, watch for the end of the url: .edu refers to educational institutions, .gov is a govt agency(natch), .org is an association or subject-specific organisation, and .com is a business or commercial venture. Be aware that individuals can post anything about anything, so consider the source.

You have given us a buffet of choices to check out for such a range of research needs, Karen. This will keep me happy as I do just that.

Silver James said...

Great links, Karen! And Helena, very good advice on looking at the tag on the url to check the source. I'm on my way out the door and hope I can get back to comment in a bit more detail...

Jana Richards said...

Hi Karen,
I'm kind of with you in that I'm not a big fan at research, probably because I'm not all that organized at it. I'm going to have to check out your Delicious site because heaven knows I need someplace to keep organized all the different websites I want to use.

I love books for research, but they are usually never as current as the Internet and it takes a long time, at least for me, to read them. But if I need a quick fact, Google is my friend too.


ban said...

i just had a conversation with a friend the other day - she doesn't even have a computor let alone the internet ! ! ! i can't imagine my life without it. anytime my daughter has a question i don't know the answer to ... i look it up. guess that means i enjoy research 'cause i do it all the time. (not just for my WIPs) don't get me wrong, i loved going to the library as a kid - to borrow 'story' books but i never liked having to do research there. i confess, i like the immediacy of the internet, the links that lead you from place to place without having to look in the card index or even get off my tushy :D

Erika said...

I hate research. Hate its guts and livers. That could just be cuz I'm a wuss. I need to get research on how things are handled. For example, one story that I'm working on a woman is in a car accident, is badly hurt and remains in acoma. She has no identification and has not been reported as a missing person, what's a hospital to do? Call the cops? Makes sense, but then what happens? How do the cops handle it? I feel I need to walk into a police station and ask someone, but who?

This is just one of the examples as to why I hate research.

Karen said...

Hi Helena. Thanks for including the information about the url ending. I even managed to include links from all those places you mentioned.

My son is not yet a first year university student but he definitely uses the Internet for all his research. Where did you find this study so I can talk to him about it? It's always good to have ammo in this kinds of conversations.

Happy researching, Helena, and thanks for the tips.

Karen said...

Hey Silver, as always, thanks for checking in.

Karen said...

Hi Jana. Yes search engines are great for a quick fact check!

An often asked question in author interviews pertains to what the author being interviewed is currently reading. Quite often they are reading research books and I think I may have to try that approach. It may not be current but some information doesn't change all that quickly. I wonder if you retain information better if you've read in a book verses something you skimmed then printed off the net and stuck in a heap?

Karen said...

Hey, ban. And that's the other thing that frustrates me. Before I know it I've spent two hours looking at stuff I could have cared less about two minutes prior to sitting down in front of the computer. Then I usually end up with no information on what I started searching for in the first place. I have no self-control.

But I don't think I would like to try living without the Internet!

Karen said...

Hey there, Erika. That's the thing, one question leads to another and then another. I wish I had the guts to just pick up the phone and call the police station and ask for the name of someone who might be willing to answer my questions but I don't so there you go. Back to the Internet and friends with husbands who are or were police officers.:)

My lack of enthusiasm for research is the reason my wip takes place somewhere I've lived, worked and grew up close to.

Erika said...

Maybe I need to set my next story in Ireland or Scotland. Then I can take a trip and call it research. What do you think??

Karen said...

I've always wanted to go to Ireland or Scotland. I think the research could potentially take me a good two months.

Well off to the store to buy my winning lottery ticket.

Silver James said...

Okay. Erika, I blame it all on you. I started Googling to find out the answer to your question and came across a story about a diabetic coma patient in India whose eye was eaten by ants while she was in the hospital. The acting superintendent of the hospital said it was not uncommon for ants to bite diabetic patients because of their high blood sugar levels. Bah-huh? *shudder* And yes, I checked the source -- a reputable new organization.

Bottom line? Call the PIO (Public Information Officer) of either the hospital or the police department. Tell them you're an author and need information because you want to give an accurate portrayal. You'd be surprised at how nice they can be. (I know from experience because those calls were often routed to me and I'm very nice. ;D )

And that just goes to show what a time suck internet research can be. LOL

When I need quick info, I tend to check Wikipedia. Yes. I know. Anybody can post anything. But usually, there are reference links at the bottom to put me on the trail to more scholarly treatises.

As for organization, I use Mozilla Firefox as my browser. I can set up folders under my bookmarks tab and that's what I do. Then, when I bookmark a site, I sort it into the correct folder. It's like having a virtual file cabinet. For instance, I have folders: Research-Celtic; Research-Cops&Fire; Research-Ireland; Research-General. Those are just examples. But it works pretty well and I've saved a few trees and lots of storage space.

This was a great topic, Karen.

Erika said...

Thanks for sharing your icky discovery Silver. YUK! If an ant ever eats one of my eyeballs I'm gonna be ticked off!

The PIO. Thanks, you're the best kind of friend. The kind who does the work for you! :grin:

Helena said...

Karen, I've just searched for the info that I saw on CBC-TV Mon. night. It was a study done by the Ontario Confederation of University Faculty Associations, reported in the Ottawa Citizen.

The study referred to students as immature, they rely too heavily on Internet tools such as Wikipedia for research (do the cut and paste thing), and they fail to learn independently. Interviews with students indicated they don't know how to study, complain that nobody is pressing them - they seem to expect to be treated the same as they were in high school.

They don't understand, as Silver does, that Wikipedia (like any encyclopedia) should only be used as the starting point that leads to further, more in-depth sources -- books, journals, periodicals, etc. Some may be electronic in format but you can't do a paper at university just using encyclopedia articles.

I have been using the Favorites function in Internet Explorer to organise my folders of websites -- but I do miss Mozilla Firefox which I had on my desktop until it (the computer) crashed. Wasn't using my laptop for the Internet until then, didn't download the browser ... long story ...

Karen said...

Ants, really? That's disgusting but possibly useful information.

That's why I love this blog. I could round up the nerve to phone and ask to speak to a Public Information Officer type person. Thanks so much for the tip.

And I'm all for saving trees and storage space.

Karen said...

Thanks Helena and Silver. I'm going to start out by asking if he knows about the reference links available at the end of the information at Wikipedia. Teenage steps!

Will go to CBC's site. Thanks Helena.

Ishbel said...

Research is incredibly difficult and absolutely essential. Thanks for the great site links.

Janet C. said...

Great post, Karen - and great information in the comments, too.

I'm like most of you - I start off researching a specific item that I need to know the answer to, then it links to another site, which links to another site, and so on and so on and son on! Hours wasted on a simple question - that I end up not answering. Isn't the Internet great?

I'm going to add this link (and let's hope this time I actually embed it properly). I love this site - and you can find tons of information. Be aware - it's a time suck, but a fun one.

I have to check out Delicious because I'm not the best folder organizer. Thanks for all the links and again great post.

Ishbel said...

To those who consider going to Scotland...(even although I know it is wishful thinking at this point)....
Try to get a booking or two at a library or store, and then you could potentially write off your trip (particularly if you get some kind of written invitation).

molli said...

Hi Karen. Thanks for the tips today. Google is not yet my friend, but I expect soon to be more than nodding acquaintances in relation to ballerinas, leg injuries, etc., so this post is timely. I don't know if I'll ever get to loving research, but I can surely see how you can be hours into it and still not where you started out to be.

Karen said...

Hi Ishbel. You are so right. Being able to research efficiently and effectively is a valuable skill.

Thanks for the great tip you added because it is definitely something to consider should one being traveling or thinking of traveling. Most people need all the cost saving advice they can get these days.

Karen said...

Hey Janet. I like the link. I was going to talk about sites where you could ask questions but I forgot. Another one I found interesting but haven't tried was called The Straight Dope. You can ask questions of the fellow who runs the site and he comes back with his answer.

Karen said...

Hi Molli. Well, when you start the research needed for your lovely heroine you have a place to start. And when you do get distracted you know you'll be in good company.

Captain Hook said...

I love researching! The internet is useful but I still love going to the library and digging through reference materials.

Hayley E. Lavik said...

Excellent links Karen, I'll be sure to give them a look through. I like your suggestion of the kid's site. Sometimes all you need is the basic info and then you can move on. Too many details can be confusing, and can also make a person (me at least) tempted to add all that stuff into the text to show you know.. when a bare-bones bit of info would do.

I also like the Eyewitness kids books for things like that. For an introduction to a culture, an ecosystem, the history of battle, etc, they give great info with plenty of pictures. I'd much prefer pictures for formulating my own approach to describing something.

Another slang site I use sometimes is The Urban Dictionary which I believe is fairly user compiled. It doesn't provide background or regional info on a word, but it's handy for finding a new way of saying something, or something vulgar/insulting without being blatantly coarse in the text :)

I generally try to stick to fairly reliable sources for things like historical info, but it's sometimes pretty overwhelming to dive into. What the internet was immensely helpful for, for me, was gathering info on opium. I could find plenty of information on harvesting, use, dens, etc... but some very diverting searching finally found me a page on home-growing, etc (not the sort of info to necessarily be passing around), and it was the only page to actually describe the smell of smoking opium. I was thrilled. A very satisfying research moment.

connie said...

Hi Karen
thanks for some great sources. I don't spend much time surfing. I try to go right to the answer I am looking for on the net or in books. net or books? six of one and half a dozen of the other. I finally found out that if I use quotation marks when I type in a subject, it moves me right to sources particular to my query e.g. Medieval "womens' rights"
and spares me the agony of the very idea of searching any of 1,209,957,934,001 results
However, now that you have given me some sites to look over, I will now say, "Really useful blog". I am off to surf.

connie said...

I don't know what is on the web about identifying a woman with no id. Some community relations police officers are terrific at helping out. Our's is the pits. There are some good books on the subject. Try the web under police identification techniques. Having said all that, I will now answer your question:
In Canada, police would be contacted. They would first check out any missing persons reports, check the cellphone (if any) for a NICE number, a number for next of kin or whomever to be notified in case of emergency. Is there a medical information bracelet to list allergies or necessary meds needed everyday on your victim? The media would be contacted and given a description of the person and circumstances, looking to the general public for assistance. They would request that anyone with any information to call police immediately Fingerprinting might work if the person has indeed been printed. Most people haven't. (CPIC would be checked. Canadian Police Information Centre), which has a list of all missing persons reported and therefore might be able to match the bod to the report.
OPolice officers are notoriously suspicious of everyone and it takes awhile to 'make friends' and be able to get some info. Meantime, call me if you think I can help. I also have two sons who are police officers and I have picked up a lot over the years. You can also pick up a lot by watching cop shows but procedures vary between the usa and canada and most cop shows are set up with equipment and resources beyong the wildest dreams of any police force. But, the bare bones direction they are taking is ususally helpful. "To Serve and Protect" (the motto of all police forces) is a good one. It follows Edmonton police and an American force or two and you can pick up a lot about technique and demeanour of the police in different situations. Hope this helps

connie said...

Erika I just reread your comment. Do you know anyone who is or knows a police officer? They might talk more freely than walking in cold and asking a police officer for information. They are EXTREMELY cautious about who they talk to and usually, their are methods they don't want the public to know
Your victim has been in a car crash. The police would check out the registration right away. Was it her car? A friend's? Did she steal it? Was it an accident or was the car fixed to crash? Was someone trying to kill her? You could have a lot of fun with your victim!! Connie