Friday, September 28, 2007

Research: Like Salt to Mashed Potatoes, Part 2

How can the Internet become my best friend?

By Lonnie Cruse

Researching today is a thousand times easier than before the dawn of the Internet. (And is anyone here besides me old enough to remember the excitement of owning your own set of World Book Encyclopedias so you didn’t have to spend time at the library researching a report? Kids today don’t know how lucky they are.) We writers can find information on just about any subject we need to on the Internet. We can type the key words of the subject into our browsers or use one of the many search engines (Yahoo!, Jeeves, Google, etc.) and links to thousands of web pages will pop up, WAAAAAY more than we’ll ever have time to read. And chances are the information we get in these searches will be pretty accurate. I love printing out whatever information I need and keeping it handy without having a ton of heavy books sitting on my desk. Might want to bookmark the best websites you find if you think you’ll be using them again.

Tip: When you connect to the Internet to begin a search for information on a particular subject, check your e-mail, play games, or whatever it is you want to do, many browsers like Yahoo! show the current hot news stories. If one of those news stories catches your eye, check it out right that minute, before it’s replaced by an even hotter news story, even if it’s about a subject you aren’t writing about at the time. If the news item caught your eye, interested you enough to read it, chances are good your subconscious is telling you it would work well in a story somewhere down the road.

A couple of years ago I saw a story about an accident at a nursing home that killed some of the residents and injured others. I followed that story for several days and printed out the pages. The authorities concluded it was an accident, but the “What if?” question kept bugging me, and I thought it would be a great way for a killer to get rid of several victims at once, and hide his/her identity at the same time. That news story became a center support beam for my second mystery. IF your brain is signaling you “What if?” don’t ignore it no matter what genre you write! You might not find that information so easily later on.

Back to researching on the Internet. Recently I’ve been researching botulism as a way to poison a character. Since I’d home canned various veggies and fruits years ago when my kids were small to help supplement the family grocery budget and had read up on safety measures then, I figured I knew a lot about the subject. And we all pretty much know not to buy dented cans of fruit or vegetables at the grocery store. But I figured I’d better check the subject out on the Internet anyhow and make sure I had my facts straight. I knew I’d get better information on the subject on the Internet rather than re-reading my old, outdated canning books. Turns out, the canned fruit I wanted to use probably wouldn’t work because it has too much acid, which helps prevent botulism from forming. And who knew baked potatoes (wrapped in aluminum foil) not kept at the correct temperature before serving could cause botulism poisoning because potatoes are grown in dirt? Certainly not me! I found that information interesting enough to want to use it, either in my work-in-progress or a future story.

Thoroughly researching a subject on the Internet will often lead writers into side issues of the subject, and from there into an entirely different area, giving us not only a wealth of information, but new story ideas as well. Ideas we can use now or later.

When you search for information on a subject, usually the search engines will point you to various websites run by experts who will either have the information you need posted there, or will answer your questions via email. If it’s a health or safety issue, chances are there will be a discussion board you can click into for more information. Word of caution, check SEVERAL websites on ANY subject to gather information as some sites may be phony or running a scam. If several sites give the same information and appear to be run by knowledgeable people in that field, then you’ve hit a gold mine.

Some websites function like dictionaries and/or encyclopedias and will have helpful information as well. And if all you need is a definition, or maybe a spelling or common usage of a word, try It was created for kids doing homework, but adults can get tons of helpful information off that site. And it’s free. There are plenty of free informational sites we can use, so avoid the pay sites.

If you are researching a city to write about, even a small one like Metropolis, Illinois where I live, chances are they have a website with a multitude of info about local businesses, tourist attractions, history, accommodations, transportation, and most important, some even have maps with street and highway names. Extremely helpful if you are writing about a place you haven’t lived in for many years and therefore don’t know the area inch by inch.

By the way, on the search page you will likely see offers to buy whatever it is you’re researching at Amazon or on eBay, but last time I looked, Metropolis wasn’t up for sale at either place.

So, if we writers can’t afford to fly to some romantic or spooky or touristy area to research it for our story, we can find out all we need to know to make our story believable to our readers by researching the location on the Internet. And did you know there are websites with satellite pictures of practically every place on earth so we can “visit” any place we want to from above? A friend recently helped me find a picture of our house taken from a satellite.

We can find information about history, science, romance, famous people, legal issues and laws, anything we need to know, on just about any subject, on the Internet. So if you have no clue where to start looking for research information on a particular subject, start with your browser.

Tip #2: If SPAM email irritates you as much as it does the rest of the world, here’s a tip for getting revenge and finding new character names for your story on the Internet, and it’s free. I have writer friends who use the ‘send’ names from SPAM emails they receive for their characters’ names. You have to admit, some of those spammers’ fictitious names ARE pretty original.

SUGGESTION: Choose any subject you’d like to research and key the term into your browser. Open and read a couple of articles on the subject and print at least one article, map, description, or other piece of information out to save in your research folder.

In the fourth book I wrote, I needed information about a collapsed lung because my character was going to have a serious car accident and I wanted her to have to deal with that particular medical emergency. I asked a friend who is a nurse, and she loaned me a medical book heavy enough sink a ship. We’ll be discussing using experts for research in another post, but in this case, I couldn’t make heads or tails of the book. I keyed in “collapsed lung” to my browser, and I got exactly the information I needed regarding symptoms, treatment, precautions after treatment to prevent a recurrence, etc.

Any questions?


Julia Buckley said...

I admire all of your research, Lonnie! I too have gotten some basic medical info from the internet, although I've used all sorts of sources for knowledge, including friends and family with the particular specialties I need.

Paul Lamb said...

I can remember being the one house on the block that had a full set of World Book encyclopedias. Somehow I was the child that inherited these books (from the late '60s). They're in my basement somewhere.
I take a look at them occasionally, and it's easy now to see the biases and inaccuracies in them. The Soviet Union (at the time) was consistently referred to as "Russia." Alcoholism could be caused by "nagging wives." Some of the history provided has since proven to be incorrect (that we needed to drop the atomic bomb to end the war with Japan).
There is a lot of carping about the unreliability of the internet, but the basic resources available to regular folk in the pre-internet days age was probably not much better.

Lonnie Cruse said...

Thanks, Julia.

Paul, great comments, thanks for stopping by! I think I inherited our encyclopedias too, but sold them in a yard sale.