Write What You Can Know Well – 10 Internet Sources for Research

by Mike Evan

A longstanding maxim within the writing craft has been: “Write what you know.” Certainly, authors have never constrained themselves to the knowledge they currently possessed. They researched subjects through books, interviews, trips to locations, and things such as these.

Enter the internet.

How has the World Wide Web affected that relationship between direct experience or research, and the subject matter of the contemporary author? In other words, because we writers have access to websites and web-enabled tools, are we able to short-cut the process?

Yes and no.

No, because what has always held true still applies: life experience trumps any amount of research. Whether it’s through an interview of a WWII vet, or all the internet research in the world, none of us who weren’t at the Battle of Bastogne could possibly tell its story like one crouching in the trenches during hours of incoming fire.

Yes, because of the ubiquitous nature of the modern internet. Where in earlier days, one required means of access to individuals or research material which could be difficult to obtain, today any author can find loads of free information at the click of a mouse.

There are almost countless sources of information available via the internet. Sure, one must exercise care when using these materials, but the same may be said for every research source. Some are more reliable than others; some require additional fact checking. Here are ten categories:

1. Websites. From general to specialty websites, there is a load of information available. As always, the more sources you can find, the more confidence you can have in your material. In addition, cruising the websites can offer many ideas for your next story or allow you to see connections you would otherwise have missed. Online catalogues can be especially useful for gathering specifics.

2. Wikis and Encyclopedias. There is, of course, Wikipedia, which is becoming more and more reliable in its information, complete with linked sources in many instances. In addition, there are specialty wikis for many subjects. Many encyclopedias, such as the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, offer information freely for all users.

3. Mapping Software. The phenomenal mapping features of internet applications like Google Earth offer the user opportunities to not only map out locations, but to see the areas through pictures and videos from a variety of angles. Except for the smells, many times it’s almost like being right there.

4. Online Dictionary and Thesaurus. A few keystrokes, and you can find complete definitions of words and correct usages, including examples. In the same vein, the internet tools make it so much easier to use a thesaurus to find synonyms, or even better, that perfect word that offers that precise shade of meaning you’re trying to find.

5. Language Translators. There are countless language translators on the internet, although some are better than others and you’ll often get conflicting results. It’s always best to find someone, either in person or online, who speaks the particular language fluently, to really get it right and avoid the embarrassment of using a foreign phrase incorrectly.

6. Library Databases. Some local libraries, as well as universities and colleges, provide access to specialized databases, such as EBSCO, Reference USA, LexisNexis, and so on. This access is usually more restricted and often depends on your residence, or being enrolled in a particular institution. Open source programs are actively working to bring much of this information to the general internet user, but for now, it’s best to check with your local or school library.

7. Multimedia. There are literally millions of multimedia files available internet, ranging from zany time-wasters to complete how-to series of videos. There are many images freely available, although you need to be quite careful not to violate copyrights when using an image, and try to find the original source for permission or to satisfy usage requirements, including fees.

8. Online Interviews. These offer invaluable insights from the unique perspective of various individuals. These give you the chance to really see what makes a person (one who might resemble your character, for example) tick. Often times, it also provides the opportunity to pick up on special lingo used by certain people, or in certain professional or geographical cultures.

9. Online Forums. There are a number of online forums focusing on virtually every subject known to man. In addition, blog sites and many articles have comment sections that can in themselves offer a treasure trove of information, particularly from the unique perspective of someone who has lived out a particular situation or has a special insight or expertise.

10. Direct Contact. Perhaps the greatest advantage of the internet is the opportunities it provides for establishing direct relationships. Many of these can provide opportunities to relate to someone who has had first-hand experience with a certain topic of research. Most people are thrilled to share their stories and life experience, and to act as a kind of expert on a subject.

We have really just touched the surface of research opportunities available via the web. Since the nature of material and applications available on it change literally by the week, I’m sure there are numerous other ways to use the internet as an effective research tool.

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