Monday, January 18, 2010

Modern Research

A nod to writers of the past and the tools of the present

I find it hard to really imagine what it must have been like just ten or fifteen years ago, or at any point prior to that, to write a book that involved any sort of research. The Internet has made a lot of the research I need to do an almost trivial endeavor. In the past, it would have taken me many hours at a library to gather anything close to the same information I’ve been able to collect in a fraction of the time – and at will. I don’t need to gather my research questions and then drive off to the library to get my answers. I simply punch up Google or Wikipedia and the answers are at my fingertips.

One of the fellows at the writer’s roundtable I sometimes attend, Jeff, used these tools to produce a description of a character driving the streets of Edinburgh. When I read the description, I was blown away at the level of detail and the historical and even geological facts that he’d used to transport the reader there. I was convinced that Jeff had actually been there and would have easily believed him if he’d told me he’d worked there as a tour guide. I was astounded when he told me he’d done it all through online research.

I do wonder if this approach might make me sloppy – less thoughtful about the data I’m gathering. But I don’t think so. I think that if the research were more onerous, I’d simply write around it and my stories would lose some of the realism I’m able to inject into them by careful use of Internet tools. Below are a few of my favorites.

Google Maps and Google Earth - these applications allow me to get a satellite-eye view of the world. Using them, I have been able to find appropriate places to set different locations in my stories. I’ve been able to find everything from lowlands to mountains, from forests to waterways. I’ve been able to identify large cities and tiny villages, and get a sense of their distances from each other, their major thoroughfares, and the configuration of their buildings. Using tools like Street View, I can actually take a virtual walk down Main Street that gives me at least a vague sense of what it’s like to be there. More, Google Earth has a tool that incorporates multiple photographs into a panoramic view of the area that’s extremely detailed.

Distances and travel times are almost trivial. Google Maps has even added a “walking time” feature recently. And with OneNote’s screen-clip function, I have been able to grab maps of my locations and store them in my notes, even marking them up with lines, circles and text.

Another indispensible research tool is Wikipedia. I’m honestly not sure I could tell a story that even touched on our physical and historical world without Wikipedia to help me out. I’m certainly aware that not every fact in the Wiki is guaranteed to be accurate, but all too often I don’t need thesis-quality reliability. I just need some quick info to point me in the right direction or tell me what something’s called or how something works. In those occasions where I want ensure that I’ve gotten my facts straight, it’s easy enough to start at Wikipedia and then either follow the references cited in a given article there, or just punch a query into Google and see if I can find independent corroboration.

Google itself is, of course, a vital tool. It opens up a vast array of informational sites from official organizations to dictionaries. For instance, on Saturday I decided that I needed to brush up on my military terminology. “The Military” is an awesome tool for telling stories – they can be saviors or they can be tools of the political-industrial machine. They can be heroic warriors or they can be brutal destroyers. They can be central characters or they can be a plot device to help drive the story. As such, a lot of my work involves “the military” to a greater or lesser degree. As a civilian, military terminology and jargon is foreign to me. I’m something of an enthusiast about it, but it’s hard to replicate real experience and be able to write military characters who sound authentic. So I spent a day assembling a dictionary of jargon and terminology that, when I quit, was around a hundred words or phrases in length. And I assembled that (and fact-checked the ones I thought might be bogus) just using Google, Urban Dictionary, and a handful of sites dedicated to military jargon. And I did it from the comfort of my own home. On a Saturday afternoon, that alone has some real value.

I’m sure that writing a novel by hand, with a ball-point pen or a fountain pen or a feather quill is a very personal, visceral experience. I know that there are writers still today who prefer to draft their stories on manual or electric typewriters. I’m going to continue to believe that my PC and my word processing software make me a better writer, if only by enabling me to focus on the story and not the mechanics of putting the words on the page.

And I like libraries – there’s something majestic about the rows of books on every subject slicing straight and true through the length of the building. They have their own smell and they have their own rules, and the idea of a building dedicated to study and the preservation of knowledge is a wonderful concept. But I don’t want to have to go there all the time just to tell my stories. And I certainly don’t want to drive to Indiana just because I want to write a story that’s set in a small town there. It would be nice, some day, if I have the financial wherewithal to go to Rome to research a book, but for now being able to zoom in to St. Peter’s Square and then pop over to Wikipedia for details on its history and architecture is more than good enough. It’s invaluable.

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