Monday, October 12, 2009

Research and Non-Fiction

Writing non-fiction seems to strike terror in the hearts of some writers! Often it is not so much the subject of the non-fiction as it is the search for reliable, up-to-date and relevant sources that eagle-eyed editorial assistants can check out and find that they actually are reliable, up-to-date and relevant.

The thing is, even when you are writing fiction, anything that you put into your story that is real must be accurate. You can't have the location of your story be smack dab in the middle of Kansas farmland and talk about your MC living in a high-rise condominium . You need accurate descriptions of your settings and locations, characters that dress and speak appropriately for the time and place, and even dialogue that is reflective of the era and circumstances. So the bottom line is that you need to know how to do research for just about everything you write... non-fiction and fiction alike.

We all know that a good library is probably the best research source around...or is it? Today there are sources on the Internet that you can't get in a normal city public library. But you have to be careful of what you are reading and citing. Wikipedia is an interesting site, but definitely one you do not want to use as a resouce. Editors will run screaming out of the room if they see that as one of your sources. Why? Because a lot of what is on Wikipedia is not totally accurate, factual or up-to-date, and that is because anyone can write an article about something or someone and place it there. So the first big NO NO in research is to NOT use Wikipedia as part of your bibliography. It can be a good place to start, to see if your interest in a certain subject is justified, but let it go at that, and then start doing some real research.

The Internet is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because you can Google a word or a phrase and bring up literally thousands of sites that you can go to. But it is also a curse, because you are not always sure that your information is factual and current. What may have been accurate last year could be totally erroneous today, so it is not always wise to trust every site that has interesting information. The best way to get around this is to check out the source's sources. If it is a legitimate article it will probably have its own sources, either on other websites or in print as books or journal or scientific articles.

So let's talk about some valuable and trustworthy Internet sites. I'm not going to list them in any particular order, just as I think of them while writing. First, let's talk about Non-Fiction sites. Some of the best ones I have used are the Smithsonian Institute, the Library of Congress and National Geographic. These sites are already listed under "Research" in the right side of my blog.

Have you ever wanted to use a phrase but can't remember just where it came from? I'm bad about this, because my memory sometimes is like a sieve. So this is a great site: Wisdomquest ( If you enter "to be or not to be", for example, Hamlet, Act III comes up and there's your quote, who said it, where and when. Two others that are similar are Bartlett's Familiar Quotations (, and The Quotations Page ( I haven't used these for awhile, but I assume they are still on the Internet.

Another one I've used is Pathfinder (, which is the home page for all of the Time Warner magazines, like Time, People, Sports Illustrated, etc. I wouldn't rely much on the People magazine, but I have used both Time and Sports Illustrated.

Here are some that I've got bookmarked but haven't actually used yet. Mysteries of History ( is about all kind of interesting yet "mysterious" happenings in history. An example is an article about Stonehenge and how, supposedly, the stones got there and were arranged in the order that they now stand.
Secrets of the Spies( tells about espionage terminology, famous ( or infamous) double agents and other spy "stuff." I always thought I would write a spy story for a boy's magazine, but I haven't so far. Hoax Museum Blog ( has an archive of articles about all kind of hoaxes and notorious historical deceptions. Then there is the Guinness World Records (, if you're interested in world records of just about every kind, you can find it here.

For fiction sources, these are some of my favorites: Encyclopedia Mythica ( is an absolutely terrific site for mythology of any and every kind, folklore and religion. I keep thinking my next novel will be fantasy and I can use this site, but I just don't seem to be able to get into fantasy like so many writers can. I envy them. Along that same line is KidsClick(, which has all kinds of categories for weird and mysterious, mythology, religion, machines and transportation, and more. KidSpace( and TeenSpace( are sites that have a lot of links to subjects like math, science, sports, and other kid/teen interests.

Some others:
Slang Site( to find out what slang is in and what is out...although, what's in today can be out tomorrow, so you still need to be cautious about using it. Rhyme Zone ( for those who write PBs or poetry. Cyndi's List ( is a great site. When you first open it, it is all about geneology, but you can put whatever you want into the "search" space and you will find a world of information. When I wrote my article for Dig on Pirates' Safe Havens, I got a lot of info on this site. For those who want to rewrite fairy tales and folk tales, or read them to get ideas, here are two good links:
Surla Lune Fairy Tales( is a site with some rather obscure fairy tale authors ( at least, most of them were unknown to me) but the stories are great, and would make great ideas for rewrites. Another is LowChens Australia( For those who need ideas about character names, from all over the world, here are two: Behind The Name ( and 2000 Names ( I have used both, and they give the meaning and etimology of the names, both boys and girls.

Research is time consuming and at times, frustrating. But if you approach it without fear it really doesn't have to be a big monster ready to gulp you down! Know before hand exactly what it is you are going to research: for example, do you want to know what weather conditions are like in January in Montana? Into Google you would put...January weather Montana. How about needing to know what boys wore to school in 1860? Into Google would go Boys school clothing 1860 or even 1800s. Don't let it become an issue for you or something you are afraid of, and you will be surprised at how easy it really is.

The next post I will talk about how to organize your research.