Writing, for me, is an act of pure joy, a chance to leave the world and enter a frothy bubble of thought and creation. I look forward to it as I move through the day, the way a child might, when promised candy at the end of chores.
While writing is my one true love, research has always been a second passion. In my university years, I was lucky to be just a few minutes hike from a paradise of sorts, the Library of Congress, with its heady combination of almost unlimited resources (838 miles of shelves!) set in the architectural gem that is the main building.
Today, the Internet has bypassed the Library of Congress and given us undreamed of access to facts, figures, personal stories, news and so much more. In fact, the entire concept of research seems widened even in its meaning. So, in an effort to be true to the subject, I went back to basics and researched the definition of — “research.” (I know, could anything be more boring? But bear with me.) And, using the infinite resources of the world wide web, I found some interesting results.
For example, Prentice Hall calls research “the systematic process of collecting and analyzing information to increase our understanding of the phenomenon under study.” Systematic process? Not words that would resonate with many mystery writers, I wouldn’t think, at least not this one. The other day I was researching how to hack wi-fi, which led me, in a totally non-systematic way, to some thought-provoking sites. Visit here for an unusual experience: http://learn-to-hack.com/hacking/how-to-hack-a-facebook-account/ Or here: http://how2hack.info/blog/2010/09/15/how-to-hack-hotmail-msn-reverting-method/
Note that targets are referred to as “victims.” We all might want to change our passwords after reading what these folks are up to. Or at least wash our hands.
Here’s a definition of research from Penn State University: “Research is a systematic inquiry—“ That word again. “—to describe, explain, predict and control the observed phenomenon.” Very proactive there, using words like predict and control.
http://www.BusinessDictionary.com sounds properly energetic and productivity-oriented for a business site. Research: The “systematic investigative process employed to increase or revise current knowledge by discovering new facts.” You already know how I feel about systematic but these guys earn a “Get Out of Jail Free” card for the “investigative process.” We mystery writers love investigative processes. But increase or revise current knowledge? I dunno.
Yesterday, I needed to find out how big the no-fly zone is over the District of Columbia, and, specifically, if it included MacArthur Blvd. The answer: very big and no, you probably can’t fly your news helicopter over any part of Northwest Washington without getting into very deep doodoo. (http://www.airliners.net/aviation-forums/tech_ops/read.main/292471FLY2HMO)
Did that increase or revise current knowledge? My own, I suppose, and insofar as those who will read ESCAPE TO PANAMA, they certainly won’t try to zoom over our nation’s capital anytime in the near future. But the sentence infers a body of knowledge. It’s a stretch.
I like Merriam-Webster’s definition better: “careful or diligent search 2 : studious inquiry or examination.” That’s more like it. Writers want to be careful AND diligent AND studious. Our readers expect no less. Merriam-Webster gets a pat on the back.
And that leads me to the last one, my hands-down favorite, from the Johns Hopkins Krieger School: “Research is work to acquire new knowledge.” I love that. So simple. So complete. So writerish. Just what I would have expected from the nation’s first research university.
I should back up a couple of paragraphs to say I know some readers will argue that determining the parameters of a no-fly zone is really not research, it’s fact-checking. And there we have a difference of opinion. Fact-checking is part of research. It can be a small point of clarification that can take a moment – or a huge one eating up an entire day. It’s still research.
Here’s an example of fact-checking that led to research I may use in another book. The other day, I had an Army contingent tearing through the D. C. rush hour “like Patton stormed the Dardanelles.” When I wrote the sentence, something struck me as not quite right. I knew General Patton had been at the Battle of the Bulge and the Dardanelles were off in another direction. Near Greece maybe. A quick check of the indispensable Wikipedia set me straight and Patton is now leading his troops through France, where he belongs.
But the nugget for a future book was in the second source I checked, www.pattonhq.com. Here I learned that Lieutenant Colonel G. S. Patton, Jr. had written a report in 1936, one that later became part of West Point’s curriculum, entitled “The Defense of Gallipoli.” Gallipoli being in none other than the Dardanelles. Well, well. Something must have stuck from all those years of European History courses in school. I skimmed the report and will go back to the site and perhaps revisit Patton in general. Who knows what may come of it? Systematic? Hmmm.
As to sources, I know that universities generally frown on using Wikipedia because of its admitted unreliability in areas, but I find it excellent for small things like this. Double-checking with another site can quickly confirm accuracy or not. Of course, writers, like reporters, should always use at least two reliable sources.
Another staple of my research is http://www.FreeDictionary.com. If I check Wikipedia three, four, five times a day, I visit the FreeDictionary twenty-five. Its ease of use, and the Medical, Legal, and Financial dictionaries, Acronyms, Idioms, Encyclopedia, and Wikipedia Encyclopedia, make it an inexhaustible resource. I know writers who are wedded to other dictionaries but this one gets my endorsement.
Finally, a shoutout to my search engine, http://www.Dogpile.com.
I originally experimented with the site because I heard the owners helped homeless animals. (To the tune of $1 million!) That, plus superb, consistent, award-winning performance throughout the years (Dogpile collects information from Google, Yahoo, Bing and several others), has kept me a happy user. (It didn’t hurt that they’re patriotic, for a change.)
I’m always looking for good research sites, tips, techniques, and the names of authors who have research-rich books. Do you have some? If so, I hope you’ll improve this post by sharing them in the comments section. Thank you.
~~ Britt Vasarhelyi