Writing Advice: Five tips to inspire (and improve) your online research

What do the following two pictures have in common?

Words? Pictures? Ideas? Yes, yes and yes. But they are also both photos of sources I’m using for my new work-in-progress. Yes, they are drastically different in terms of medium. The first two are reference books I’m madly absorbing so that I can recreate the zeitgeist of a moment (or two) in time. The second serves the same purpose, but it’s located on a university library web site among its digitized archives.

When my first nonfiction book was published in 1989 (yes, I’ve been writing for that long), online research was nonexistent. Research required a writer to get up from the desk (or couch), get to the library, spend hours in indices to find the right citations, then hours and hours combing through books, articles, and microfiche readers. Unfamiliar with microfiche? Oh, what you have missed.

A microfiche reader

I used to love sitting in the library peering through the lens of this massive machine at the piece of microfilm upon which a photographic representation of an original book or article now lived. I’m not kidding – I really did love it. What I didn’t love, however, was how long it took to find that specific resource. The indices were massive and not as intuitive as what we use these days. Things have changed, indeed.

Card catalogues were more than a little bit daunting.

Depending on what you write, you have to do more or less research. And that research thee days is often (probably mostly) online.

If you write any kind of nonfiction, unless you’re writing stream-of-consciousness my-new-idea-is-genius-and-doesn’t-need-any-support, you need to do a lot of research. Or perhaps you write fantasy of some kind and are creating your own worlds. You could do it without any research, but you’d be short-changing yourself. What has been done by others? (You don’t’ want to do the same thing.) Which colours work best with orange hair and purple skin? (You get the idea.)

And even if you think you don’t think you need to do any content research, what about ideas for character names, car models (what year did they start making the VW Beetle, for example), weather in a particular city at a specific time of year? And what about publishers, agents and online publishing platforms? All of those require you to do research. So, as far as I’m concerned, writers need to consider how and why they do online research.

These days, I’m recreating 1965-66 for my work-in-progress. It’s great fun and I’m learning a lot along the way. If I didn’t have the big old World Wide Web, though, it would be taking me a lot longer to do it, and I’d probably not have access to half of what I need. It might even cost me money.

Along the way, over 30-plus years of writing, I’ve discovered a few tips that I thought I’d share with you to inspire and improve your online research.

Here goes.

  • Keep track of every URL you visit and keep a note about each one. This is something that I’ve transferred to online research from in-library research. Many years ago, when I was n grad school doing a literature review for my Master’s thesis, someone told me this: never search for the same source twice. You see, you won’t use every piece of research for your current writing project, but just consider how you’ll feel when, a few years from now, you say to yourself, “I remember reading something about that. I wonder where it was?” If you follow this tip, you’ll know – quickly. How you organize this is a different blog post!
  • Let one source lead to another. This is the fun part. Every time you find yourself reading an online article, for example, look at its sources, consider what it references in the text. Look those up. When doing academic research, this meant reading the reference list of every journal article (and there would be hundreds of sources on some fo them) and ferreting out the ones that sound like they might be useful. When you’re writing fiction, this is a treasure trove of new ideas and directions.
  • Try asking your question at least five different ways. When we use a search engine to begin our research, what we find is completely dependent on the way we phrase the question. For example, what films were released in 1965? Versus, what were the most popular films in 1965? Versus what were the worst films of 1965? Versus, who were the big guns in Hollywood in 1965? All of these will give you different answers. And, if you don’t find what you’re looking for, keep rewording it to get it closer.
  • Check your source credibility. This is particularly important if you’re writing nonfiction or even historical fiction. Details are important. For example, if you want to know the best treatments for arthritis in the 1960s (I’m not really looking for this, but, you never know!), be sure you don’t’ use the information on some quack site unless you’re going for a quack kind of remedy in your story. This is even more crucial in nonfiction. You need to look at the credentials of your source. If you’re searching for current treatments for arthritis, for example, you’re going to get a different perspective if you use the information on a patient support group site that’s financed by a specific drug company. Follow the money.
  • Keep meticulous records and recycle your research. No, I’m not suggesting self-plagiarism (See my recent post on the Moonlight Press blog on that one.) what I’m suggesting is that research can be packaged in different ways, slanted in different ways with different objectives and used again. You might use some of your research for a magazine article, then reuse it as the basis for a novel plotline, or a character. Of course, this means that you need to have very well-organized and referenced digital files (obviously, it would defeat the purpose of digitally-based research if you print out everything and need three filing cabinets to house it – just go out and kill a tree already!).

As I move forward n a piece of writing, especially one with a historical bent, I find myself doing upfront research before I begin, but I also find myself researching on the fly if you like. I don’t always know that I’ll need to know what kind of camera was popular in the mid-1960s when I start writing. But then it makes its way into the manuscript – and there it is (it’s the Canon Demi, by the way, red).

Time to fill that blank notebook with research notes!