So I didn’t get any writing done this morning before work, largely because I was doing research. Since I made the realization that I need to be profiling an assassin rather than a serial killer, I started doing some internet searches on the psychological profile of assassins. Found some interesting stuff and have probably gotten myself put on the CIA’s watch list or something simply for Googling the subject matter. That being said, there’s some really interesting (and disturbing) stuff out there on assassins. I actually found some “How To” sorts of manuals, which would be useful for anybody writing straight assassins as characters to read. The good news is that I think I’ve found enough information to finish out the profile discussion tonight, which leaves me with just the final confrontation and the afterward to write. Holy crap! I’ll be finishing my book this week!
That’s enough of an update.
What I really want to talk about is research methods for fiction. Now, I am a social scientist by training. What? you may ask. There’s life beyond writing? Sadly yes. Anyway when anybody says “research” to me, my first inclination mentally is to hit all the various databases of articles through my University. And that is often useful. I get peer reviewed journal articles that are generally more trustworthy sources than the average result of a search engine online. But one thing we’re taught as scientists is to be skeptical. Just because it’s been published does not mean that the methodology was sound. Additionally, they are often written in language very specific to the field, such that the average Joe doesn’t’ necessarily completely understand it, or may misinterpret the meaning because many field specific terms have very different meanings in everyday life. Don’t worry, I’m not going off on a boring tangent about academia. My point is that professional articles are only useful to a point. If you DO want to look for them and don’t have access to a handy dandy university library, you need look no further than your local library. Most public libraries are part of state consortiums which will allow you access to those university libraries. In some cases you only have to login with your library’s account information and you’re set. In others, you may actually have to go to the library’s computers for the search. In any event, the resource is there. Another source for academic articles is Google Scholar.
But when you’re looking for information that’s a bit easier to understand, I always turn to Google. I can’t speak for other search engines, as I don’t use any other. Ask.com’s “algorithm” doesn’t seem to work at all, at least not for anything more serious than pictures of chicks with swords or whatever their latest asinine commercial was about. In any event, I am a believer in the power of Google. One of the major reasons that I love it, is that you get access to mass quantities of full text library material through Google Book. In addition, it just seems to pull stuff from all over that you wouldn’t find otherwise. I am in awe of the power of Google. (And yes, I realize I’m starting to sound like an infomercial).
A few rules of thumb that are pretty self-evident, but I’ll mention them anyway:
- Don’t believe everything you read on the internet. Just because it looks like it’s from a reputable source, doesn’t mean that it is. So take whatever you find with a grain of salt.
- Limit your search terms. Instead of asking “What are the closing words of the Gettysburg Address?” just search for “Gettysburg Address”. Avoid common words like a, an, the, etc.
- Google has a feature in advance options that allows you to do a Safe Search, so that you’re less likely to come up with something you didn’t intend, like a porn site or something.
- Click at your own risk! If a website asks you to install software or something, be sure you know what it is before saying yes!
Another nifty feature of the web in terms of research is the availability of forums. Forums are awesome. You can find them on anything. I had questions about what the experience was like for people going to visit family members or friends in Central State Prison in North Carolina. There was a forum out there that allowed me to ask some folks directly. Do a search for your topic followed by “forum” and see what comes up. If you need to know something about a specific field, you can more than likely find someone to answer you, if not in a forum, then you can often find someone at a company or in that specific field to ask. This should be a cardinal rule of research for writers: Ask and you may receive; if you don’t, you won’t. People in general, I have found, are very helpful. Pen a polite email explaining what you need to know and asking the question. Thank that person for their help or for directing you to a person who may be able to answer it. Email is great for this purpose. I found numerous helpful people on various Department of Corrections websites who helped me figure out where one of my characters would have been imprisoned and for how long, so that I was able to use legitimate prisons in my book. In some cases I didn’t have to ask, because their website had so much information on it!
The internet is truly a wondrous place in terms of research capabilities for writers compared to pre-internet days. The real danger is, in fact, spending too much time on the research and not enough time on the writing! Or in my case, blogging when I should be doing the day job…back to work.