Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Reference and Research—the World Beyond Google

This post originally ran on Anne R. Allen's always illuminating and informative blog. I'm reprinting it here for those who might have missed it there. :-)


Which president came before Theodore Roosevelt?

How do you revive a dying orchid?

How fast can a rhino run?

What does SPECTRE stand for?

In the course of writing a novel, a writer—one who will never indulge in an info dump!—will often need to find the answer to all sorts of oddball questions, some of them basic, others esoteric, still others trivial but nevertheless important.

Google and Wikipedia and YouTube are the basic go-tos but there are many other sites (just about all of them FREE) that will answer your questions and, even better, give you answers to the questions you didn’t even think to ask.

Here is a brief round up of sites I have found indispensable for research including a few that aren’t usually thought of as reference sources.

The New York Times maintains a massive searchable archive containing more than 13 million articles dating from 1851. You can search by author, section, or time periods from past 24 hours, past year or by specific dates.

The Washington Post maintains a searchable archive dating from 2005. (For dates prior to 2005, there is a paid archive search.)

USA Today, New York’s Daily News and the BBC also offer valuable search options.

Time magazine’s archive extends from 1923 to the present and includes the weekly’s covers for a visual look at what made the headlines week by week during most of the 20th Century and all of the 21st. 

From hair dos to manicures, grunge to prep: If you need a clue about what your characters are or were wearing or detailed info about their grooming routines, Vogue is the place to go.

Need to jog your memory about books, TV, movies and music? Try Entertainment Weekly.

The dish on celebs? Need inspiration from human-interest stories? What about The Sexiest Man Alive? People is the place to go. And not to forget: James Bond trivia.

Want to ask an expert? Sign up with Quora where you can choose from over 400,000 topics to create a feed of information tuned to your interests. Google Plus has communities devoted to just about any subject you can think of.

Messing with the Mafia? From Omertà to La Cosa Nostra, from Al Capone to John Gotti, the answers are here.

For the raciest in bathing suits or a who’s who and what’s what in the locker room and on the gridiron, the skating rink, the baseball diamond or the tennis court, Sports Illustrated will clue you in. Writing for a younger demo? SI Kids has the deets.

Pinterest, eBay and Etsy are usually not considered research sites but they are gold mines of ideas presented visually and, in the case of eBay and Etsy, items described in detail—a big help when you don’t know what this or that knicknack or collectible is called or when you want to find a popular hobby or off-beat interest for a character.

Need a name for a Catalan or Chinese character? Want a name for a hillbilly, a witch, a rapper? A name with ancient Celtic, Biblical or literary allusions? Try the name generator at Behind the Name

Authors of Regency fiction will find information on law, language, clothing, and the peerage plus links to other relevant sites from Regency author Joanna Waugh.

The Pew Research Center offers a searchable database covering everything from demographic data and scandals to international affairs and global religious beliefs.

Seeking a “fact checker for the internet?” Check out RefDesk.com.

Streetwise slang? Here’s the guide to current lingo: urban dictionary.

Hung up for a movie or TV series quote? This site will probably know.

Consult the Oxford dictionaries in a variety of languages including: British English, American English, German, French, and Spanish. The Oxford biographical dictionary contains bios of almost 60,000 people, English and beyond.

A dictionary on steroids, WordHippo tells you the meaning of a word and also finds synonyms, antonyms, words that rhyme with it, sentences containing it, other words starting or ending with it, its etymology, and much more. Type in what you are looking for, choose the appropriate category and WordHippo will come up with the results, as well as give one-click links to other data for the word.

Setting your story during a particular day in a certain year? Get the scoop on what happened on that day the BBC News OnThisDay site.

There’s a research blog for the history of graphic design at the University of Southern Missisippi.

Contemporary art? Try MOMA in New York City or the Metropolitan Museum. In San Francisco, try the SFMOMA, or MOCA in Los Angeles.




Science? Get information about Mind & Brain, Plants & Animals, Earth & Climate, Space & Time, Matter & Energy, Computers & Math, Fossils & Ruins at ScienceDaily.

Health and medicine? Rely on the experts at the Mayo Clinic.

Still need more? Try the Smithsonian:

The US Army has an extensive, searchable site that covers American wars from the Colonial era to the current War On Terror in the archives of the US Army Center of Military History.

Stuck? Out of ideas? Don’t even know what to look for next? Tell this site what you’re interested in and they will recommend websites/photos/videos: StumbleUpon.

We are living in the information age. Just about anything a writer wants to know or needs to find out is just a few keystrokes away. No more trips to the library. No more scrolling through hard-to-read microfiche. No more searching through heavy tomes to find that one piece of information you're looking for.


Explore beneath the surface to find the pearl of info that will make your book stand out from the crowd: the right research, properly used, can make all the difference.

2 comments:

  1. I commented over there (I think!) This is an excellent post - very useful, thanks Ruth! I didn't know the NYT went back to 1851, that's pretty amazing!

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    1. Hi Claude! Thanks for stopping by and commenting. As I was pulling this post together, I was constantly amazed by how much information is at your fingertips (literally). A huge difference from the old days at the library and scrolling through microfiche.

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