Research is important in writing, especially in fiction writing. Though you are making it up, there needs to be the basis of truth in how you tell the story. If you’re writing about a disease, you should know the a little more than the basics of the disease. If you’re writing about the police, you need to know about police protocol.
As a reporter, research is a huge part of my job. From poring through documents to digging deep in interviews of sources, I need to know about my subject before I let the public read my stories. Here are some tips of the trade I’ve learned that can and will help you research.
Wikipedia is ONLY a good starting point
Too often people turn to Wikipedia for research. Hell, that’s typically the first place I go to find background. However, as a journalist I will NEVER (nor can never) rely on the site as a reliable source.
Now 95 times out of 100, what’s on Wikipedia is correct. They have a team that checks any updates, and if it’s a locked account — such as for any high-profile politician (President Barack Obama or Speaker of the House John Boehner) — that is more reliable than a non-locked account. But I still never use the site as a source to attribute because in its nature anyone can change it, edit it and update it.
Stephen Colbert perfectly explained why Wikipedia is unreliable by telling his Colbert Nation that supporters of the former half-term Alaskan Gov. Sarah Palin tried to save her absurd explanation that the patriot rang bells and shot guns to warn the British were coming. Then when they changed the Palin followers’ attempt to literally re-write history, Colbert told his viewers to change Wikipedia’s bell’s entry to say it is also what Paul Revere rang to warn the British was coming.
All valid entries have source material at the bottom. Check the footnotes and get the information directly from the source material.
I fancy myself as someone who can find just about anything online. Here are three simple search tips to find things you are trying to look for:
- Site-specific searches
Open a new web browser window and load www.Google.com.
As an exercise, we’re going to search for the Yearbook of Immigration Statistics on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s website. In the matter of three mouse clicks (and potentially two if you know exactly what you’re looking for), you’ll have at your fingertips DHS immigration stats from 2004 to 2013.
In your Google search bar type in: data and statistics site:dhs.gov
(Please note, there is NO spaces on either side of the colon)
Your first result will read, “Data & Statistics | Homeland Security”
But if you look at all the links on the search results, they ALL begin with the http://www.dhs.gov domain. Neat trick, huh?
Click on the first entry of the search results and then you’ll see a hyperlink for the Yearbook of Immigration Statistics
Let’s try another. Type in: foster care stats site:www.childwelfare.gov
Your top result is, “Foster Care Statistics 2012” and all your results are with the http://www.childwelfare.gov.
- Document-specific searches
If you thought the site-specific search was neat, you can find any document that was loaded on a publicly accessed website by a similar search.
As an exercise, we’re going to search for some crime statistics. Let’s say you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for but you want to find some type of crime statistic. In your Google search field, type in: police calls for murder filetype:xls
(Again, note the lack of a space on either side of the colon)
All of your search results will be Microsoft Excel files.
Change your XLS to PDF and see what you get.
Again, pretty neat, huh?
Now go ahead and combine the site-specific search and the document-specific search. Say you want to look on the United Way of Cincinnati site for a pdf. Type in your search like this: site:www.uwgc.org filetype:pdf
What if you want government data or statistics on guns? Type this: guns site:.gov filetype:xls
Now if you want to search for a recent document, say something that was posted last week, last month, the last 24 hours, or even between Jan. 1, 2011 to Jan. 1, 2012, the search engine’s search tools (Google’s time refining tool is under Search Tools, and Yahoo and Bing will blatantly reference the time refining options)
The search possibilities are endless.
- Other types of searches
You want to search for a specific phrase? Put quotes around the words you want to search. Now this doesn’t always work, and Google will try to suggest a search without it but select the options that force the search with the quotation marks around your words. And if the phrasing you had didn’t bare any fruit, try another phrasing.
Say you need some realistic property valuations. Go to the county auditor’s site. They have recorded online the property records in the county you are in. If your county is small, then search for a larger county. They will have property values, what properties sold for in the past and what jurisdictions the property is in (such as the municipality or township and school district).
You want to do some deeper digging? Well search deeper. The mainstream search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo will give you surface-level results. But you want to search the “deep web.”
Now deep-web.org will give you some information on deep web searches. This type of search will search a bit deeper into the World Wide Web. Now I don’t personally use the deep web searches because everything I need I can find using Google and the above document- and site-specific searches.
If you are going to be writing a book, you may want to or need to talk with some people in order to gain an insider’s point of view for a character, how something works or some location you need a native’s perspective but you can’t get to. Here are three basic rules when it comes to interviewing someone:
• Don’t ask a “yes” or “no” question. You will get a “yes” or “no” answer.
• Try to ask the same question at least one different way.
• If you don’t understand something, ask a follow up.
Now the last of the three rules is self-explanatory (or at least I hope it is) so I won’t get into that one. Not asking a “yes” or “no” question should also be self-explanatory, but it can be difficult. If you formed a question and read it aloud you may think to yourself, “Yeah, that’s something he or she would answer.” It probably isn’t if it’s in a form a question. So don’t ask questions. Have them tell you about something. For example, “Mr. Jones, tell me about the time you first saw that UFO. Describe how you felt when it first appeared.”
Or, “Explain how this blob moves like that in that lava lamp.”
My favorite question is the “Idiot’s Guide” question. “Break it down for me. Give me the Idiot’s Guide version to (insert subject here).”
Now you may find yourself asking a traditional question, and you’re supposed to. But bring out your inner 3-year-old and ask more “Why’s” than any other type of question because that inherently will elicit some lengthier response (and if they’re a smart ass and says because that’s the way it is, remember your inner 3-year-old – “Why?”).
Asking the same question a different way is an old journalist’s trick to try to get a subject to answer the question, and to make sure their answers are consistent. Too many times a politician or a person trying to hide something will give an answer to something and if they’re hiding something, they may not remember what they said the first time.
But it’s a skill to learn how to ask the same question two or three different ways without them thinking they just answered the question. For example, “Mrs. Wallaby, talk about your experiences as a child working with apes.” After you ask a few other questions, come back with, “So, how do children learn by working with apes.”
Now those two questions may seem like they will elicit different answers, and they’ll probably will vary in some manner, but at their core they are getting Mrs. Wallaby to talk about working with apes as a child, or from a child’s perspective.