February 6, 2012

back to basics: research

So, this will be the last post in the “grade school” section of the Back to Basics series. I was going to cover grammar and common mistakes in writing, but I think if you stick to the rules laid out in the previous posts, you’ll be okay. If, of course, you have questions, don’t hesitate to email me. I’d be happy to help you out.

Leading into the next section of the blog series, we’re going to take a look at research. Every writer has to do research. It doesn’t matter what you’re writing. Trust me. Hopefully, I can help direct you to the right sources.

When I started writing The Clockwork Giant, I was lucky enough to have a series of books titled How Things Work. I stole these from my dad way back when, and they’ve been a huge help in researching steampunk technologies. Not everyone is going to have the appropriate books just lying around, so where do you go when you need to know something?

Honestly, I have four sites that I need on a regular basis: Wikipedia, Google, Dictionary.com, and BehindtheName.com. I can guarantee that when I’m researching for a novel, these four websites are my first go-to sites.

Wikipedia, for those of you who don’t know, is a web-based encyclopedia that is written and edited by a conglomeration of volunteers. And while this could lead to false information, Wikipedia has managed to monitor its many articles for accuracy, and if a page has questionable sources or content, it does not hesitate to advertise so. There are over 3.8 million articles in English, covering pretty much anything you need to know. In the last week or so, I have used Wikipedia to learn more about California rolls, telephone switchboards, Cardiff, retirement, Sherlock (TV series), deadmau5, Southern literature, orthography, neon, hydraulic fluid, mecha, 2012 Pro Bowl, Greek mythological figures, electrical engineering, Chinese zodiac, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, list of Merlin episodes, list of Psych episodes, PROTECT IP Act, sardines, infant formula, baby bottle, Battle of Waterloo, and honestly, the list just keeps going. It’s an invaluable source.

Google is a must for research. Beyond the search engine, I use Google Maps and Google Translate the most. When writing a story set in a real life location that you’re unfamiliar with, Google Maps can clear a few things up for you—where landmarks are, street names, distances, proper country–region–county–city–community associations, and so on so forth. For example, when trying to figure out where I wanted Chroniker City to be, I used Google Maps to find an appropriately sized island close to Great Britain. In fact, the island is directly off the coast of  Pembrokeshire, Wales. Those two little shadow dots—the one on the left is where Chroniker City was built. Another thing I use Google Maps for is making up street names. Medlock Cross, the main thoroughfare of the fourth quadrant in Chroniker City, was created based on a random zooming in of a city in the UK, as were Delaney Road, Farringdon Crescent, Tilling Close, Andover Street, and Pemberton Square (which is actually in Massachusetts).

Google Translate is extremely valuable if you plan on having bilingual characters or foreign settings. In The Clockwork Giant, the citizens of Chroniker City come from all backgrounds. Emmerich’s father is German while his mother is French. Norris, a secondary character, is Welsh. Mr. Stricket, the Monfores, and most of Petra’s adopted family are English. The founder of Chroniker City was German. So, I actually ended up using quite a bit of foreign language. I have a sci-fi story that I plan on writing between book two and three of the Chroniker City series that will have a cast of characters who represent several nationalities, and you can be sure that there will be several instances of foreign languages in the book, most definitely Japanese, French, and Mandarin at the very least.

You wouldn’t think that Dictionary.com would be a research site, but seeing as I write historical fiction, it’s important for me to know what words were in use at the time the story takes place. There have been several words that I have had to change over the course of writing the novel because they were not invented until much later, such as robot. And there have been some words that I chose not to use because they sounded too modern, even though they were in common use at that time, such as girlfriend. So if you’re writing historical fiction and want to avoid anachronistic terminology, I highly recommend using Dictionary.com to discover the origin of the word.

And last, while it’s not so much research as brainstorming, BehindtheName.com has been invaluable to me. I use this website to come up with character names, finding just the right name for the character. They also have a companion website for surnames. While it isn’t a complete compilation, it’s a good starting point.

With these four websites, you can cover pretty much all of your bases, whether you are writing contemporary, historical, fantasy, or science-fiction. And I know that professors and teachers tell you not to use Wikipedia as a source for research, but outside of academia, Wikipedia is the golden font of knowledge. Don’t hesitate to use it for your writing.

How do you conduct writing research? What websites do you use the most?

I hope you all have a spectacular writing week.


  1. Since I haven't attempted a historical novel yet, I have to say your use of Dictionary.com fascinated me. What a great way to ensure your word choice is fitting for the time in question.

  2. Funnily enough (or not), I also use Wikipedia, Behind The Name, and Google a lot. I'm not big on Dictionary.com though. I prefer my print dictionary for the English and have a couple bookmarked Chinese dictionaries, since I'm using Mandarin pretty frequently in the WIP. I also use Youtube for how-to's—how to build a hydroponics set-up, how to disarm someone with a knife, etc.