Saturday, July 11, 2009

Mastering the Internet for Research

When I was first a glowy-eyed new writer (back in cave days, when I did not have my own internet connection - heck, my first novels were written long hand and transcribed on a typewriter by a better typist than I) I didn't really think about research as I sat down to write my first Regency romance. After all, I'd read every Jane Austen book there was... many times over. Also, I'd read hundreds of Mary Balogh, Jo Beverley and Mary Jo Putney novels. (Among other fabulous Regency writers) That was enough, right?

Well, I rapidly found out it wasn't that easy. When my hero went to light a candle, how did he do it? With a match? When were matches invented?

And that lord... is he a marquess, an earl, a viscount? What would others call him? Who would be introduced first, a lady to a lord or vice versa? I made a whopper of a mistake in titling my first book, Lord St. Claire's Angel, as it was kindly pointed out to me by a knowledgeable reviewer (who liked the book anyway) that the hero would not be called Lord. St. Claire at all. Yikes. If only there had been some way to quickly look up that kind of thing!

A writer needs endless information... my Regency-era heroine is getting undressed as she thinks about the kiss she shared with the hero just moments before... but wait... she'd need help getting undressed, wouldn't she? So her maid would have to be there. But wait... should there be a long row of buttons down the back of her gown, or... not a zipper, certainly - even I know that wasn't invented until... when exactly? Oh, never mind! - but buttons or hooks and eyes? Oh, heck, I needed research, and I needed it to be quick and thorough.

Back then, when I finally did get the internet, dial-up was slow and expensive. Reeeally slow. Achingly slow. Go-get-yourself-a-cup-of-java-while-the-website-loads, slow. And we were limited on our plan to how many hours a day we could use it.

Zoom forward on our time-traveling rocketship to the present day... wheeee!

Thank the writing gods for dls highspeed. I don't ever want to go back to pre-internet for research because it was slow, difficult and frustrating. There were a few helpful books that I still have on my bookshelf: The Writer's guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England, What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew. But sometimes in those books I ended up with as many questions as I started, just new ones! A writer needs much more precise information than any book will be able to give in its limited number of pages.

However... as great as the internet is, there are pitfalls galore for the unwary writer to fall into if they don't watch where they step.

For instance... for my third 'Awaiting' book and my third Lady Anne book (something about those third books!) I needed Gypsy lore, language and customs. Then I found a great site for Gypsy language, everything I needed to know. I started making a list of words that... wait... oh. Hmmm. It appeared that the site I was so excited about that provided an extensive list of Gypsy language really pertained to the Gypsies in a video game. Dang.

What has helped me immeasurably in my research for novels and in every other aspect of my dealings on the internet is maintaining a skeptical mind and requiring at least three sources for every bit of unusual information I find. That isn't always easy to do when I find a juicy bit of info that sparks my interest, but I hate looking like a fool. It's the same when someone sends me one of those hideously ridiculous 'email alerts'. You know the ones, the story going 'round about the vicious criminal that is cutting women off at the ankles as they gas up their cars, or that certain cleaning products are lethal to your pets, or the tale 'told to me by a friend who actually witnessed this' that ends up being a lame retelling of an internet urban legend.

Don't try to get me on those, because I delight in exploding internet myths.

But that's far afield from research. Ultimately, researching novels on the internet is like anything else in life, it requires a healthy dose of intelligent skepticism, diligence, and thoughtfulness.

A few of the best sites I have found and use over and over again are:

Wikipedia: I know, I know, it's open source, anyone can edit the entries, (I've edited entries for spelling and mistakes myself) there are lots of mistakes yada yada yada. However... as a starting point there is no better spot.

Victoriana - Despite what the name of the site would seem to indicate, this site also is a great resource for Regency fashion.

The Regency Collection - What Anne Woodley has done is amazing... this is a great resource for postal history, inventions, writing and life in general in the Regency era. Stupendous.

So... I'm always open to new sites, new interesting places; I spend far too much time on the internet, as you can tell, but I'm ready to spend more time! Do you have any historical research sites of interest? Any place you go on the internet for reliable info? Any place that's just fun and interesting? Clue me in!


  1. Hi Donna!

    Great post-I loved hearing about your early research squabbles. I love that I work in an industry that fuels my desire to want to go out and learn more! Working with historical (romance) fiction gives me a reason to spend oodles of time on Wikipedia, learning about the various royals and aristocrats mentioned in books, as well as the culture, society and amazing fashion of the different eras.


  2. Your post took me down memory lane, Donna. I remember handwritten manuscripts I paid to have typed and the boing-boing-hiss sound while I waited for the dail up internet connection.

    About Wikipedia: I think the argument that it can't be trusted because "anyone" can edit an article to be unhealthfully elitist. It's an argument that doesn't have its feet on the ground. What Wikipedia does is distribute new, unsanctioned by the status quo information far more rapidly. I love Wikipedia. But then, I've always had problems with authority. :-)

  3. I don't do historical, obviously, but the Internet is the best research tool ever invented. No packing up and heading to the library. Just a few clicks and you have the information you need. I don't know where I'd be without it! And I'm with MM: I LOVE Wikipedia!

    The other thing is word processors and email. No need to type and correct your mistakes with White-out. It comes out perfect. Printers have improved greatly since that first one we bought twenty-odd years ago. Or was it thirty?
    Emailing a manuscript sure beats putting it in a box and heading to the post office.
    If I'd been a writer way back when, well...I probably WOULDN'T be a writer!

  4. A post directly up my alley!

    I can't imagine what I would do without the internet. 99.9% of my research is via the net. I have a couple of books, but to be honest I rarely open them. It is just so much easier to search while sitting at my computer.

    Like you I start, usually, with Wikipedia. I know all the cautions as well, but agree that it is a good starting place. Especially if I am just looking for a quick date verification or fact explanation. Plus the references added to the end are often really good. The truth is, I always double or triple check an important fact (usually way more if writing a large amount about a subject) and I have NEVER found Wiki to have made an error!

    Thanks for Victoriana - I didn't have that one. I am sure you know of Deb's Historical Research? That is anther great launching place, although it is easy to get lost in the curiosity over some other fact!

    After the 200 or so Regency, Derbyshire, London, etc. sites I have bookmarked, I turn to good ole Google! I have become quite skilled at searching! Just altering a word arrangement can yield totally different websites.

    Great post! I love the internet for research. And I can't imagine doing any of my writing without a computer. *shudders*

  5. Thanx for a fun post, Donna!

    Count me as another Wikipedia fan. Just like you, I like to use it as a jumping off point.

    And like Sharon, YAY for Google! I like to use the image search to find pictures of locales and such. It's GREAT! Oh, and anyone who thinks you don't need to research a contemporary novel has never tried writing one!


  6. Danielle - Oh, the stories i could tell about my many mistakes... but I'm not gonna say a word!

    Mary Margaret - I actually find Wikipedia to be astoundingly accurate most of the time. I've corrected typos and a few deliberate mistake entered by jokesters, but usually it's spot on.

    Cheryl - I remember the smell of white-out! And I used to type my ms's with a carbon copy... so messy.

    Sharon - what is Deb's Historical Research site? Post the url!

    Aunty cindy - Another great thing about Wikipedia... the list of free source graphics! I've used many for my website!!

    Thanks, everyone, for the comments!

  7. Donna, I almost always use the Internet for research. I write Scottish Historicals so I try to use family websites searching for stories. I also write Westerns, or at least trying to. Most of my research has been spent on trying to find the right pistols and stockings for the time. ;) But recently I took a break from Internet research and began exploring in person. I've been driving around and taking pictures. The kids and I went to the museum where I found the train I use. I took tons of pictures. It was so much fun to see it all in person. Since I usually use the Internet that was totally out of my realm.

    Some of my favorite sites are

    And for my Kansas base western, I can't go wrong with and


  8. Super post, Donna! Yeah, I love the internet for research. I love to look at pictures of wolves and see their expressions, or read about plants that exist in areas where I've lived, but I've forgotten, or read about cold and rainy Oregon when it's 110 degrees here and drier than the blazes! :)

  9. One of the reasons I love writing paranormal is I can make up what I need! LOL. But my stories feature heroes or heroines from contemporary America, so my world has to fit in with the real world. I looooooove Google Earth!

    And when were zippers invented?