How to do research – Tips, Advice, and Useful Websites

If you read my post on how to be a good critique/revision partner, you will remember that one of the things I talked about was paying attention to the details and determining that all the facts were right. Obviously “facts” consist of verifiable data that can be looked up or compared against something in real life.

The “facts” of a work of fiction are fluid, they’re part of the world building done by the author. If an author decides he or she wants to make something up, they’re completely in their rights.

However, some fiction lends itself more to “making stuff up” than other fiction.

Still, all good fiction requires research. If you’re writing fantasy, you have a lot of leeway when it comes to inventing things, but if you decide to talk about saddling a horse, you’ll probably need to know how to correctly saddle a horse if you’re going to describe it well.

That’s where doing research comes in.

Research comes in two forms: that which you gather through books/articles/etc. and that which you gather through personal experience.

If you’re an equestrian, I doubt you’ll need to look in a book to figure out how to saddle a horse. If you’ve never even seen a horse in real life, you’ll need to gather your information through other means.

The following are some ways to do research:

1. Go out to experience what you want to know. For example, if you need to figure out how long it takes to walk from Alphabet City to Greenwich Village and you happen to live in the NYC area, go into the city and walk from Alphabet City to Greenwich Village. Don’t forget that it would take less time for someone more in shape, taller, etc, and more time for someone really overweight, sick, lame, etc. Even a different pair of shoes can affect how long it takes to walk somewhere.

2. For geography research such as the kind I mentioned above, if you can’t go and see yourself, take advantage of Google maps. Nowadays, Google maps will give you driving, public transportation, bicycling, and walking directions. These include how long everything takes, and a seperate time for how long things will take in traffic. Furthermore, Google maps has a street view feature that will allow you to see the street almost anywhere in the world.

3. Use an online library catalogue to look up pertinent books. This saves you the time of looking through a physical library at random books, and is much more helpful and accurate than a search engine would be for finding books.

I always use Hollis, the Harvard catalogue, because the Harvard libraries are what I’m used to. They have a vast collection, so it’s a good place to start.

You can also use the Library of Congress catalogue,

4. Once you find books you can use, you can go to the library and get them, or you can buy them (I always like to buy books in my field). If your library does not have the book you need, you can use WorldCat,, to find a library that does have the book. If no libraries close to you have the book, you can ask your librarian if they participate in an Inter Library Loan program. I don’t know if there’s a fee for this or anything, but I know for sure it’s possible because I worked for Harvard’s Inter Library Loan department.

If all you need as an article, you can probably just pay to have it scanned and sent to you. Harvard ILL always gets requests for articles or certain parts of books. It will probably be cheaper.

I know paying is not really optimal, but sometimes it’s your only choice. Usually only academics need to resort to paying to borrow books or get articles scanned.

5. Ask an expert in the field. This would probably be the easiest option, but it could also be the most costly if you need extensive help and don’t have a friend or associate who will do it for free. Usually people would be willing to tell you things for free if it’s quick, but if you need an expert for an extended amount of time you’ll need to pay them.  So, if someone needed an expert on ancient Rome to tell them what kinds of things were found in Pompeii, they could come to me and I’d tell them. Or if someone who spoke no Spanish at all needed to know how to say “I hate it when you come into my space” in Spanish, I could tell them.

I’d say don’t depend on what you can learn from television or movies, because I’ve seen some horrible History channel documentaries about ancient Rome that were so unfounded and farfetched I couldn’t even watch them all the way through. So, beware of what you think you know.

6. Use the internet.

Now, I left the internet for last because it’s the most easily accessible research tool, but also the most easily misleading.

The most important rule of doing research on the internet is this:


This doesn’t mean that you can’t ever look at Wikipedia or something. But, if you do look in Wikipedia make sure that there are correspondent citations you can look at. Some Wikipedia articles are more reliable than others. Keep this in mind. Use your good judgement. If you’re skeptical, look somewhere else.

The most reliable websites you can use end in .edu. That’s not to say there aren’t any crazy people who have crazy ideas in colleges and universities, but you have a good chance of finding websites that are accurate if you look at those put up by people in a given field.

In general, think about the source when you look at a website.

  • Does the writer give sources? Citations?
  • Is it a personal website?
  • Is what you’re researching serious enough to need an unbiased source?
  • Does the writer provide you with a bibliography for further reading?
  • Does the writer say why or how he’s qualified to provide the information?

If you want to go beyond just doing a Google search, and need to find articles or something like that, you can use e-resources like LexisNexis, EBSCOhost, JSTOR, and PubMed. These are resources that cost money, but you will often be able to access them through your local library. If you can’t access them through a public library, your local university library will definitely have access to one or more of them. See if you can get a temporary pass to the university library.

Here are some general helpful websites: – A dictionary that also has a thesaurus, quote index, and encyclopedia – A reverse dictionary for when you can’t remember a word, only it’s definition. (Thanks to Wanna for this one.) – A dictionary to learn the origin of words. (Thanks to Wanna again.) – A rhyming dictionary I’ve been using for years. – A place to find names and their meanings. – Google maps, which I mentioned before. – JSTOR, which does have some free articles. – A website that has full text versions of many different books. – VIA, short for Visual Information Access, gives you access to thousands, maybe millions, of works of art that belong to the Harvard Art Museums and more that are slides belonging to the Harvard Art Slides Collection. – Harvard’s Inter Library Loan division. – Project Gutenberg, which gives you free online versions of many texts. – Everything Shakespeare ever wrote.

That’s all I have for now. If you have some websites to share feel free to do so!


If a couple of posts per week is not enough for you and you want to see what I have to say more often, follow me on Twitter: @ZulyTweets

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