I’ve been digging deep these past few weeks working through a historical fiction picture book series (I’m so stinking excited about it). On that note I’ve gotten fairly good at finding information and I want to share some of my best tricks and tips.
Unpopular opinion #1: Wikipedia is NOT a safe research source.
While I love Wikipedia for a way to generate search associations (spiderweb effect). No college (or press) will take Wikipedia as a reference. Why? Because anyone can modify it. It’s open source. So it very well may be wrong. BUT you can use it to generate your list of topics you want to dig into. So I do use Wikipedia as a jumping platform to better things.
PRO TIP: Go to the bottom of your Wikipedia page and look at the footnotes. Many of these will link to the sources of the information and some of those will be safe places to get legit information from.
The issue with research is that Google and other search engines are trying to give your widest and broadest answer to your search. They want to anticipate what you need. Most people do not need deep research. They need the general top level information. We ain’t got time for that.
PRO TIP: Specificity is key.
In your search be as specific as you absolutely possibly can be. For example lets say you search for “weird sea creatures.” You will get a bunch of blog posts and books that cover that subject but it’s all BEEN DONE. You need to be better than that. So think what kind of creatures do you want. Search “Ocean light levels.” Now you can see diagrams of what kinds of creatures live in each section. Be more specific and search for “marine life below the midnight level.” Now we are getting somewhere! This is a hyper specific search that will yield many results.
PRO TIP: Colleges and libraries have huge online databases that are usually free to use.
Many things that fall outside copy write laws are being digitized. Google has a huge print database, so do many libraries, and colleges. Take advantage of these sources. Be aware that these sites are not interested in optimizing for Google or anyone else. They are there for their students. Which leads into my next tip…
PRO TIP: The first page of search results may not give you the best resources.
Look beyond the first page of results and see what shows up. When you find something good make sure you SAVE it and keep your links to getting back to that page. I’ve had to go back countless times to pull documents over and over again because I simply can’t remember all that golden information. So plan on going back again and again, make it easy on yourself.
Unpopular Opinion #2: Sometimes you can’t find what you need online.
I’ve been able to get much better, more detailed, and specific information by talking to an expert. I’m writing about early motorcycles and I needed to talk to a real mechanic. Someone who could look at a photo and walk me through the specifics of the whole design. Will that information make it into my story? I doubt it. Most people don’t want to know the difference between a total loss oil engine and a modern engine. Did understanding it make my story perspective better? Absolutely. Don’t be afraid to go talk to a real person. You may learn something that unexpectedly changes the trajectory of your story or realize the plot you relied on isn’t feasible.
What are you digging into?