Writing Research in the Digital Age

author research 38-starflagHow many of you remember working on a book, getting to a place where you needed some information about a time, a place, or a situation in order for your story to feel authentic, yet you didn’t have that information? How many of you remember having to drive to the library to find out the facts? How many remember scooting down to your local bookstore and browsing the shelves looking for some book, any book, that could shed light on the rules of baseball in 1890 or the hunting habits of a jaguar in Brazil?

Yes, I’m dating myself, but I’m guessing there’s more than one or two of you out there who can relate.

So now we’re in the digital age. We love it, we hate it. It connects us to friends we’ve never met all over the world. It’s an electronic leash that chirps incessantly if we try to ignore it. It’s an instant connection to virtually 99% of the information the human race has accumulated in its haphazard history — and to all the misinformation, as well. I once saw a meme on Facebook that said the Internet is like a library with every book in the world, but they’re all in a big pile on the floor.

Still and all, it’s pretty darn cool.

I’m reminded of that every time I write, yet more so lately. My latest WIP is a time-travel novel where my protagonist finds himself at a frontier fort in the Arizona territory in 1877. The good news for me is that I live only five miles from Fort Verde, the most well-preserved fort in all of Arizona (and the setting for my book). A couple of times now, I’ve taken a run down to the fort to peruse the books in the gift shop or harangue the rangers and volunteers who work there to answer my questions. What did the soldiers wear for underwear? What was an average day like? What were the bugle calls throughout the day and what did they mean? What did they use for pain-killers?

It’s great that I have this exceptional resource right in my back yard, but most of the time I don’t even have to go that far. The great thing about the digital age is that, right in the middle of my writing, I can research something from my same chair.

I’ve had this happen several times already. I’m writing away madly, happy as a clam, when suddenly a situation comes up or I realize I need a piece of information. My character is walking across the parade ground of the fort back in 1877; what does the flag look like? Yikes, I have no idea. No problem, just GTS (Google That S***). Ah, here it is: 38-star flag (above). Grab an image for reference and get back to writing. Going along at a great clip now. My protagonist is impersonating the post surgeon. He’s no doctor, although he has some background in medicine, enough to realize that the knowledge and methods of 1877 are sadly, sometimes fatally, lacking. Infection is the biggest killer. Suddenly I get this idea about my guy being able to make homemade penicillin. How do you do that? GTS. Got recipes for penicillin tea, penicillin poultices, penicillin to take orally. Tuck that away for future reference and back to the book.

How cool is that? Come up against a wall, take five minutes to Google around it, get the info I need and I’m back to writing. You can’t beat that with a stick. I can’t tell you how many books have died aborning because I didn’t know enough about the time or the location it was set in. How many books are on that shelf in my mind that’s labeled Need more research? Too many. I hate to think about the books that will never be written because I couldn’t figure out what the people ate or wore.

The only caveat, of course, is to make sure that the information is correct. I’ve run into instances where I’ve found several spellings for a word or a name, some of them with citations, some obviously just off someone’s cuff. It’s a good idea to not take the first reference that you find (been there, done that), but check several to make sure they all agree and there aren’t different versions of your topic out there. We all know that the internet can be a huge cow stomach — someone puts up incorrect information, but it keeps getting regurgitated over and over again, migrating from one web page to another. Verifying the information sometimes takes longer than simply finding it, but it’s definitely worth the time and trouble.

Yes, love it or hate it, the digital age is here to stay and, in my opinion, is a boon to writers. Instant research. It just doesn’t get any better than that.

Author: Melissa Bowersock

Melissa Bowersock is an eclectic, award-winning author who writes in a variety of fiction and non-fiction genres. She has been both traditionally and independently published and lives in a small community in northern Arizona. Learn more about Melissa from her Amazon author page and her blog.

40 thoughts on “Writing Research in the Digital Age”

  1. Along with the search engine that we all think about, another Google resource that I can imagine being a big help to a lot of authors is Google Earth. If you need to refresh your memory about what’s on a specific corner of city X and the color of the building or even get a feel for a part of a city you’ve never been to, that’s your answer.

      1. True enough, Al, and I’ve done that, too. Writing about towns in another state, trying to figure out how they’re laid out, where freeways are, rivers, etc. Goes back to Shawn’s post earlier today–if we don’t know what we’re writing about, we have to figure it out.

        1. On the other hand, there’s always that catch-all get-out-of-jail Author’s Note.

          Dear reader, this is a work of fiction and a product of this author’s imagination…

          Get you out of a load of trouble that one.

          In my latest book, (out on 18th Jan–teehee), I’ve created a town to ease those self-same problems. I can never get the colour of the buildings or layout wrong because the place doesn’t exist except in my head.


          1. Good point; that disclaimer should cover it all. Right now, I’m using a real place, but I’m making “alterations.” I’ll definitely have to note that in the foreword.

          2. One of my particular pet peeves is people using real towns, yet getting things wrong. For example, an author set a book in the little city I live in and had her protagonist live on the 12 floor of an apartment building. Unfortunately I knew the tallest buildings in town were an office building that I think has 8 floors and a grain elevator about a quarter mile away from it that is roughly the same.

            Of course not many people would know enough to notice that. But make that kind of mistake in a city lots of people have been to and you’ve got a bigger issue.

            Even setting a story in a nonexistent town, how you describe it might matter if you identify too much about the area. For example, I’ve read and loved a series of police procedurals written by an indie named Mike Markel. He’s set them in a town he calls Rawlings in central Montana. Rawlings doesn’t exist, so he can define it however he wants, to a point. But it is still central Montana, so he still needs to stay consistent with the culture you’ll find in Montana. There aren’t as many ways to go astray, but you can still go astray. (Luckily, at least IMO, he nails those aspects.) Sure, you can point to an author’s note, but it still needs to ring true and won’t for many if you get those parts wrong.

          3. You are absolutely right, BigAl.
            I used a local editor to make sure things read true, but I’m bound to get some things wrong.
            Good job no one knows where I live and fewer read my books.
            Tee hee.

  2. Right with you there, Melissa. Great post.

    Check your facts as thoroughly as possible, but the Interweb is a boon. 🙂

  3. The thorough researcher will leave no stone unturned. Even non-digital stones. And verification does often seem the crux of the research problem.

    As someone who worked in a major research library for over 30 years, I’ve certainly witnessed the “digital revolution” when it comes to performing critical research. One of the issues still confronting the thorough researcher is the fact that not everything is online.

    What makes matters worse, conversion from “hard copy” to digital can introduce a slew of errors and rabbit holes. Some are technical in nature (quality control, etc.). But others errors can arise from the new “information” gaps that might be created. If certain popular materials are more easily digitized, they “get out there” first, even if those materials contain factual errors that have been corrected by subsequent (and perhaps not-yet-digitized) materials. Since the recent preference has been to cite online materials, inaccuracies get repeated and perpetuated. The “cow’s stomach,” indeed!

    I was shocked to hear one rather advanced researcher say, “If it isn’t online, it obviously has not been deemed to be important.” To me, this is the same as saying, “If it is on the web, it must be true.”

    Why might important materials not be online? Several reasons, including the lack of time, money, and/or the legal right to digitize.

    What kinds of materials might not yet be digitized or placed online? Very recent research. Information that is ephemeral in nature (phone books, for example). Old materials that require special scanning equipment. Microforms. Newspapers. In-house reports and studies performed by private research groups. Historical maps. Photographs. Handwritten notes, journals, and letters. The list goes on and on.

    And, even if something does get digitized that doesn’t mean it ever gets indexed or cataloged in a way to let search engines (and users) find them.

    All this isn’t such a huge issue when it comes to fiction. But if, for instance, you are doing medical research that doctors will use in treating patients, you can easily imagine what problems might arise. And they do.

    As in the days when digital was still relatively new, it still pays to do thorough research across all formats of materials. If nothing else, you’ll have peace of mind about your findings.

    My suggestion is to use the internet as much as you can. But also get comfortable using a really good library, even if you have to physically drive to it.

    1. William, your list of the reasons info may not be online is a bit daunting, but it’s definitely something we need to consider. (Whoever that was who said if it’s not online, it’s not important is a fool.) Yes, there are plenty of gaps as you point out, either in the material itself or in material that has not been digitized. Depending on your need, that can be a major or minor problem. The main thing I’ve found with fiction is that I may not use all the info I research, but I just really, really don’t want to write something that’s blatantly incorrect. As with all things digital, we writers just need to be forewarned and diligent. Thanks for adding to the discussion.

      1. “…I just really, really don’t want to write something that’s blatantly incorrect.”
        So right, Malissa, as in:

        “I am the greatest writer alive today,” KJD, Jan 2016.

        Tee hee. Kidding.

    2. I write non-fiction. Accuracy is the essence of our work. And due to the nature of the non-fiction audience, our published work is repeatedly examined by real experts. It’s difficult to defend an interpretation of events if one has the sequence, context or details wrong, or fails to provide references in support of disputed aspects. One must evaluate every scrap of information, regardless of source, for its accuracy and reliability before committing to it. Credibility is an instantly perishable commodity. We don’t get any “get out of jail free” cards.

    3. William, you make cogent points. Just as some things are virtually impossible to describe without experiencing, some info requires deeper digging.

  4. Yes, I can relate. (I mentioned the subject in Shawn’s previous post.) It’s a lot more expedient to do research today than it used to be.

    I download maps, photos, and descriptions of towns, cities, resorts, etc. That way I can zero in on a few specifics details to add a touch of reality. If a hotel or restaurant is not part of a chain, I change the name–unless it’s a well-known spot in the location I’m writing about.

    Do I still research certain topics at the library? Absolutely. For everything else, a thorough Internet search serves me. To be on the safe side, I always include a disclaimer in the front of the book.

    It’s fun having the world at my fingertips!

    1. Yes, saw your comment in Shawn’s and almost replied: wait a few hours. I get maps and layouts, research the local businesses, all that stuff. I have to say I haven’t been to a library in years (at least not for research); I will almost always buy the books that I need.
      Agreed, having the world at our fingertips is awesome!

  5. I remember how research was done back in the day, took Melissa. Now I’m a huge fan of GTS (although I prefer the term “using the Google,” as a former president called it.) No more hunting through reference materials at the library, jumping up to run a copy (or handwrite passages!)

    And when you find what you need, you can use your browser’s bookmark tool to save it in a folder labeled [book title: research] for backup material. You could possibly find it useful for future “Rest of the Iceberg” presentations.

    1. Good suggestions, Candace. What I usually do is copy the bit I need to my story bible (copying the link, as well) so I can quickly jump to it when I’m writing that part. But, yes, it could also be interesting as part of the behind-the-scenes features. I really like that idea, just haven’t figured out to make it work yet.

  6. You forgot encyclopedias and various other reference tomes in the “Paper Book Age.” In fact, a few years ago Encyclopedia Britannica announced they’d stop producing their paper edition and go strictly digital. I don’t know at what point the former will become collector’s items. I also considered my parents and other relatives, as well as older friends and neighbors, vital and personal resources. My paternal grandmother, for example, was a young girl when México erupted into civil war in 1910, but she had clear memories of it.

    You are right, though, Melissa: the gallery of e-books lie scattered on the floor of the cyber library. Perhaps the profession of library sciences will undergo a digital revolution of its own to help people sort through the electronic mush.

    1. It seems to me at some point we should get to where EVERYthing is digitized, but judging by the lack of funds most libraries have to contend with, that may not happen. It would be a huge loss for all of us. I used to work for the Natl Observatory, and we had huge files (filled up a whole basement) of mechanical drawings of the telescopes. The plan was to digitize them, but the priority was very low, so I don’t know if it will ever get done. I’m afraid the same is true for many old files, books, newspapers, etc. It’s not that they’re not valuable and necessary, it’s just that the work required is time-consuming and expensive. If only there was a mechanized way to do it. We can wish.

  7. I find most of the information on the internet to be rather superficial: not much deeper into the subject than old-fashioned encyclopedias were. It covers us for a lot of the information we need, but sometimes you need something that’s in the middle of that pile of books on the floor, and it’s in a book that hasn’t been digitalized.
    I’m researching paddlewheel steamboats for my next book, and all my searches send me to the same sources, quoted over and over, giving the same minimal information.

      1. Good point, Gordon; we do live in the age of the 10-second soundbyte. Much of our information is delivered in the same way. Going into depth might require digging into your source’s source’s source. I would if you could research paddlewheel museums, clubs, or historical societies? Might have to come at it from an angle instead of head on.

  8. I felt the urge to write a “timeless” noir, “adrift” in time and space, enhancing the unreal aspects of the genre.

    Chapter 1 : OK
    Chapter 2 : my protagonist needed to research something

    The whole conceit crumbled. Did he google it, or go to the library? I had to make a decision about when to set it, due that simple detail, unless I resorted to hand-wavery (“He got the information he needed.”) Everything else – phones, cars – could be just generic items, but data sourcing is time-specific.

    1. Interesting dilemma, Andy. I’ve run into similar situations where I needed one bit of information to proceed, and never could figure it out. That’s a book that’s on that shelf in my head I talked about. I believe this data source issue is a stumbling block because we are making such huge strides in technology every other day, so the landscape changes constantly and it is very time-sensitive. Heck, anymore, as soon as we finish a book and get it out there, it’s probably already out of date for smart phones and apps and such. I can see where vague might be a more expedient choice.

  9. Some great points were raised here. I can’t help thinking of my uncle, who was so thirsty for knowledge he wasn’t getting in his classes that he sat in the library floor and read encyclopedias after school. It scares some of us to think what he might have done with internet access in those days. We might all be living in a much different world! We’re lucky to have so much information, but I usually consult several independent sources if the information is really important. Not only is there false information, there’s lots of specious attribution.

    BigAl makes some good points about fictional towns set in broad areas (and Google Earth). Good writers research even those things they know well. I know it’s typically hot in NE Texas, but only research can tell me exactly how hot on which days. I also don’t completely trust my memory.

    The protagonist, Mark, is an ardent baseball fan. Knowing baseball fans like I do, all the MLB game action is based on historical data. I even determined who could’ve been batting (who was on base, etc.) and actually have hit a foul ball during his plate appearance when the critical foul ball was hit (in the novel) that brought Mark and his eventual love interest together. Even though I once lived a half-mile from the park and have attended probably fifty or so games there, I still consulted seating charts and other features. I didn’t have Mark going to an afternoon game when the actual game was at night. I compared ending times of games to the recorded sunsets, temperatures, and so forth. It was a tremendous amount of work, but reviewers have remarked on the realism of the setting. I gathered much more data than I used.

    1. I love your attention to detail! It’s what the internet is best for – quickly nailing down facts that may only be important to the writer and two other people, but they are very satisfying to get right.
      But you obliquely raise another very important point about research. There’s a vital aspect that even the best search engines and sites can never give you, and that’s what things *feel* like. You’ve been to baseball games – could you have evoked the sound, the smell, the buzz from reading a thousand perfectly written websites? Never.
      And I think that’s the weakness (and danger) or the internet. When every fact you could want is only a few clicks away, it’s tempting to think that’s all the research you need. Google Earth shows what a street in a foreign city *looks* like, but not what it feels like beneath your feet. And that matters – Syndey looks a lot like London, but they are worlds apart in feel.
      The internet fills in the facts, but it’s good, where practical, to get out there and walk in the footsteps of our characters if we’re writing realist dramas.
      There are great adventures to be had – and almost everyone I have spoken to has been delighted to help – in our pursuit of research. The internet’s great, as were libraries, but even the best written reference in the world only tells one side of the story.

      1. And you two make another good point about the amount of material vs. the emotional content. Sometimes I get so immersed in the facts that I forget to imbue them with the emotion necessary for the story, and I have to go back and rewrite. And if I unearth a ton of facts that I think are really interesting, it’s tempting to try to cram them all in the book, resulting in an info dump. I have to keep hauling myself out of the fact mode and back into the storytelling, emotional mode. Good discussion, guys!

        1. Melissa, that’s a great point that hints at why I love baseball so much. The facts and stats are virtually endless, but so are the history and nostalgia—all of it inexorably intertwined for many of us.

      2. Alan, you are correct, sir! Certain things at the ballpark are like certain things in other countries (or even other neighborhoods, in some cases). I perhaps wouldn’t have considered writing about the bead of condensation running down Mark’s shin if it hadn’t really happened to me.

        Unfortunately, my attention to detail faltered after I edited the post, but you figured it out. I have lots to learn, so I look forward to hearing more from you. Thanks!

  10. lol – when I first started writing I had mounds of New Scientist in my office, trying to second guess technology in the future. I still have the distilled version taking up one whole drawer in my filing cabinet…just in case I ever return to that particular story.

    Seems odd now, even primitive. Why cut out bits of /paper/ when you can copy/paste interesting info. at will?

    I’d be lost without Papa Google. 🙂

    1. I’m with you–I still have massive paper files of things I copied: newspaper articles, pages from books, even the whole frickin book if it wasn’t too big. And like you, I don’t know if I’ll ever hear the call to go back to those stories, but they’re there, just in case. Of course, in my spare time, I could scan them all in… nah. Too busy writing.

  11. I write fantasy and Sci-fi with a twinge of history and real science, too. I’d be in a lot of trouble without the internet. I’ve even used it for some Welsh translations (I did have an editor with knowledge of Welsh check it out for me as well). Whether I need to learn a few things about medieval cogs or mix some string theory in with Welsh legends, I’d be in a lot of trouble without the internet. I generally only use info that I can confirm from more than one independent source – although since I write fiction I’m not afraid to use a little writer’s license. My biggest problem is that I get side-tracked while looking up information. Case in point I wanted to learn about solar eclipses. I ended up trying to figure out if the solar eclipse in The Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court matched historical records. It was something that always impressed me as a kid – using scientific knowledge to get out of trouble. There was a total eclipse over most of England, but it was 8 years after the story setting.

    1. Bore da, Armen,
      I went to school in Laugharne (Dyfed), more years ago than I care to remember.
      Might be wrong, but I’m of a mind that one can get bogged down in too much detail. Not sure the (non-scientist) reader is that bothered as long as the story’s good and there’s consistency in the perceived ‘facts’.
      For instance, a yellow house should remain yellow throughout the story. I once inadvertently changed the eye colour of one of my leading characters and had howls of derision from my reader (I don’t have many).
      I now use a self-built Access database with my character details and refer to that constantly. The same thing could be used in world building. 🙂


      1. Armen, I also doubt many readers would fact-check something like the eclipse in Connecticut Yankee, but I do appreciate authenticity. When I first read Lonesome Dove and read about the lightning dancing across the horns of the cattle, I thought, “Really??” Later, I found out it was true. It gave me an even better appreciation for McMurtry because it was such an obscure fact.

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