Research is the foundation for almost all writing (with the possible exception of poetry). Poor research leads to a poor work and can undermine a writer's credibility. We all make mistakes now and then. I mixed up the names of the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia in my book Dark Moon.Both orbiters met tragic ends but in very different ways. A NASA engineer brought the boo-boo to my attention. (Yep, made my day.) I also introduced television five years too early in A Ship Possessed. (To this day I don't remember writing that line.) Being human means we're going to make the occasional mistake in our writing, but the serious writer does his best to avoid such things, and that takes research.
Different projects require different levels and depth of research. Even fiction requires a good deal of fact searching and checking. Here are some tools you can use to aide your research.
1. iTunes U. That's short had for iTunes University. Apple, Inc. has done writers a huge favor by making recordings of class lectures available for download. Some are video some are audio only. These podcasts (pod-lectures?) come from some of the best colleges and universities in the country. For my current nonfiction work, I listened to a lecture about the 1920s and the Scopes trial. The width and depth of what is available is mind-numbing. Not only that, it's free.
2. Wikipedia. This online encyclopedia got some bad rap early on. It's crowd-generated, meaning that writers are volunteers. It is also self-policed and edited. In the early days people could change the articles and sometimes inserted opinion rather than facts. Today, Wikipedia is a gold-mine with free admission. It is run by a nonprofit. I often turn to Wikipedia for quick information. It's strength is it's use of hyperlinks and links to other sources. My work drives me to Wikipedia everyday. I never use it as my sole source of information. That's just bad technique. Research requires multiple sources. I have yet to have a problem of fact on the site. (Except the entry for my name needs a lot of work. Any volunteers?)
3. Wikiquote.org. Need a quote from C.S. Lewis? Surf to en.wikiquote.org, type his name in the search field then settle in for some pithy insights. Next year Baker Books will release my newest nonfiction. I wore out wikiquotes sourcing the quotes I used.
4. books.google.com. This site should be as famous as plain ol' Google. In many cases you can search within books, books not even your local library caries. "Oh what a tangled web we weave when firs we practice to deceive." Shakespeare, right? Nope. I thought so but it turns out that Walter Scott wrote that line in Marmion, an epic poem. It appears on page 343 of the 1808 book and published by J. Ballantyne and Co. I gleaned all that information in moments. Not every search goes so well. Copyright keeps them from putting the full text of some books, but you will be surprised at the research riches contained in this site.
5. Dictionary. Most book publishers use Merriam-Webster as their dictionary of choice. This isn't true for all publishers but the majority. Need to look up the meaning of a word, or, discover if a term should be hyphenated or a compound word? If so, visit www.merriam-webster.com.
Well, that's a start. There are other sources that are quick and free. What's your favorite?
Alton Gansky is a full time writer, director of BRMCWC, founder of Gansky.Communications and host of Writer's Talk. He is the award winning author of over 40 books. Prior to turning to full time writing, he was the senior pastor to three Southern Baptist churches. In addition to his writing, he speaks to writers groups and church organizations. www.altongansky.com