The Internet and Research

Yes, I know you can’t trust everything you read on the Internet, but I love being able to use it for research. When I first started writing (back in the dark ages), if I needed to research something, I had to drive at least 20 miles to reach the nearest large library, and even then I wasn’t sure I’d find the information I needed. At that time it was also difficult for me to call professionals and ask for information; after all, I wasn’t published. Why would they talk to me?

They did, of course, talk to me, and once I was published, those calls were easier for me to make. But I’m not one who likes to talk on the phone, and often a call wouldn’t give me the information I needed right when I needed it.

I encourage all writers to call and interview professionals. You’ll always learn more than what you expect as the person you’re talking to relates personal experiences. And if you’re writing anything that involves law enforcement, I encourage you to attend the Writers’ Police Academy that Lee Lofland has been putting on for several years now, attend conferences that have “hands-on” sessions or professionals talking about their jobs, and join the crimesceenwriters yahoo group. But if you need information right now…or can’t afford to attend a conference or the WPA, the Internet can be a blessing.

For example: The other day, for my wip, my police officer is looking at his new Ford Interceptor SUV. Great. I have no idea what one of these vehicles looks like, what equipment it comes with, if it’s a push button start, or if the officer will need a key to start it. I had lots of questions, so I did a few Google searches for the vehicle and for its equipment.

Ford Interceptor Utility

An hour later, after I’d watched two videos, I had the answers to my questions. (No key fobs for the version sold to law enforcement. Only a key. And the vehicle needs to be locked using a key. (I guess that’s to keep the officer from leaving his keys in the car.) The videos also showed me the interior, and I could see exactly where the equipment would be place. Also, front seats are covered in cloth; back seat in vinyl (probably to make cleaning up after hauling a drunk to jail easier). A visit to a few on-line sites selling the equipment gave me an idea of what my officer might have installed in his new Interceptor.

I’ll only use a little of what I learned, but I feel more confident now that whenever I have a scene where my officer is in his new Interceptor, what he does and the equipment he’ll use will be correct.

For that same wip I also needed to see how cane fighting is done, especially how the elderly can use a cane as a weapon. I may still try to take a class in cane fighting (it is taught where I stay in the winter), but for now watching videos is really helping.

So NO, don’t depend on sites like Wikipedia for your research, but there is a lot of information on the Internet that can help you make your writing sound as if you really do know what you’re talking about.

It’s the old saying, write what you know…or what you’ve recently learned.

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18 Responses to The Internet and Research

  1. I completely agree with you regarding using the internet for research. In the old days, and I’m talking old, I’d go to the library for every bit of knowledge needed. So a big Thanks to the internet for making life easier. And thanks to you, Maris, for this terrific blog.

  2. Melissa Keir says:

    The internet has made research easier. I haven’t been to Ireland but I can visit it with one click.

  3. I always learn something helpful from your posts, Maris. Thanks so much for sharing your knowledge.

  4. Maris,

    Like you, my early novels were researched at libraries. I enjoyed doing the research and discovered many valuable reference books. I still use the library but now I have internet resources as well. It is convenient.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Jacqueline, I’m sure you’ve found, as I have, the reference librarians are fantastic resources. The Internet is convenient; the librarians are marvelous.

  5. Anne Stone says:

    Maris, great blog article –thanks once again. 🙂

    Do you have a method for authenticating a website for research? I know many of us realize Wikipedia is not a place for reliable information but in doing a Google search we sometimes get a lot to choose from…do you have a tip for which ones might be best? For example a .org site?

    Your advice and encouragement about calling upon a “real” person to interview truly hits home with me. I talk myself out of that all the time — not being a published author– I’m getting a little better. Right now I need to talk to a medical professional either a nurse or doctor who could talk to me about a head injury. I have a few friends on Facebook who fit the bill so maybe I will try there first.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Anne, I would definitely suggest you put out a call on your various sites (organizations as well as social media) for a nurse or doctor willing to answer a few questions. And, if you happen to have a doctor’s appointment, try asking your doctor. Years ago, I needed information about what a rural doctor would do if a man was brought to her clinic late at night with a broken ankle and he refused to go to a hospital.

      During my annual checkup, as my doctor was about to leave, I asked him if he had a moment to help me with a scene I was writing. Fifteen minutes later I had all of the information I needed. I’m sure the patient waiting in the next room for the doctor to show up didn’t like the time he spent with me, but I was happy.

  6. Paula says:

    For my book, I’m trying to find reputable sources for diagnosis and treatment of mental illness; how the general public is being educated; and whether the stigma surrounding mental illness has lessened (and if so, how much). In addition to using “org” sites, I’m hoping to find surveys by companies that people trust.
    I’ve recently subscribed to a blog that has a wide distribution written by people who have mental illness and chronic illness. This may prove to be a source for me to get interviews for my book on personal experience.
    Thanks for mentioning this again. I hope there are a lot of comments with suggestions for us.

  7. Maris Soule says:

    Paula, it sounds like you are taking all of the necessary steps to find the information you need. Have you considered contacting the PR people with the pharmaceutical companies to see if any of them can feed you the statistics you need?

  8. Carole Price says:

    Good advice, Maris. I went through our citizens’ police academy 15 years and am now comfortable asking questions from most of the officers I know. It can be intimating asking strangers questions, but the coroner I reached out to was happy to answers questions about bodies. He even gave me his own phone number for future questions.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Carole, I envy you going through a Citizens’ Police Academy. I keep hoping I can attend one, but so far they’ve always been held when I can’t make it. The Writers’ Police Academy has, however, been fantastic. As you said, the presenters have always said to contact them, any time.

  9. Lucy Kubash says:

    How did we ever survive without the Internet for research? I recently subscribed to the digital version of the Jackson Hole newspaper, and it’s given me a ton of information about the area and the current problems they face. A question I had about different types of western saddles led me to a huge website on the subject. Although I still confess to having a budget for “real” research books, looking up information online is so handy.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Lucy, your examples are exactly what I mean. Nowadays, writers who have access to the Internet can discover the information they need (or didn’t know they needed) in the comfort of their homes. It’s a wonderful tool, especially when combined with in-person or phone interviews, or travel. (And I happen to know you’ll be traveling soon so you can have those in-person interviews. Have a safe trip.)

  10. Hi Maris, sorry to be so late in participating. I too, love the internet for researching. I’m not one to call and talk to the experts, although, if I get a chance to talk to someone in person, such as a sheriff deputy, motel owner, etc. I will take advantage of talking to them. I recently spent almost two months on the internet and watching a television series on crab fishing in the Bering Seas (Deadliest Catch on Discovery channel) and learned a lot about the kind of boat they use, what the equipment is called, the danger they face, etc. Probably more information that I need, but another good point to do is know your subject inside and out. Great post!

    • Maris Soule says:

      Thanks for your comment, Connie. You made a good point. We writers need to know what we’re writing about (inside and out), but we don’t need to convey all of that information to the reader (via the story). If you know your subject, that will show through in the writing.