Monthly Archives

October 2016

How (Not) to Talk to a Writer #8

I have a great idea for a novel! How about you write it for me and we can split the profit!

Oy, vey…

I recently stumbled across this statement by Rick Riordan (best known for his Tres Navarre Mysteries)

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(via Sugarpromises on Tumblr)

See, ideas are the easy part. And while some people think they’ll just whip out a novel themselves one of these days (see “How Not to Talk to a Writer #1), another subset of people come up with the strange hope that you’ll do all that pesky writing stuff for them…

But I don’t know of a single writer who’s out of ideas. Most of us have so many ideas that we’ll never get them all written. (Have you ever noted that people like Tom Clancy and James Patterson work(ed) with other writers sometimes? That’s because they spin out so many ideas that they’re comfortable farming some of them out to the bush league.)

Personally, I have 18 novel outlines or starts on my computer right now. That’s to say nothing of the ideas that I haven’t done that for.

Say it with me:
Writing is the HARD part.

I don’t mean writing a scene. Or a handful of scenes. What I’m talking about is a complete narrative that runs from one end to the other, beginning of the story to the end. And like Riordan says above, it’s easy to give up in the middle when it gets hard.

I spent a lot of the last few months trying to figure out how I was to get a character out of a prison. Well, in a way that would make sense. And not have him be too passive in the whole equation, or have his wife be too passive, either. I’m finally happy with my solution, but it took a long time to work it out.

It’s hard to steam through those parts that you can’t quite figure out. It’s hard work, even if it doesn’t look like it to an outside observer.

…and no self-respecting writer is going to do that for someone else.*

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*I will say that if James Patterson approached me and asked me to ghostwrite for him, I might consider it (because $$$$). I am, however, far more likely just to recommend he talk to one of my friends who is more experienced with tie-in work.

 

ZOOmbie to ZomBEE, an Accidental Flight Path

This the sixth in a series of guest posts by authors who, like me, have found themselves falling down into a Research Rabbit Hole, often with hilarious results. Because this is the true danger of research…it sucks you in!

 

GUEST AUTHOR: ALLISON MULDER

About a year ago, I spent a semester in Chicago and went to Lincoln Park Zoo several times. It was free, I could walk there from my apartment, and it made a fun setting for a zombie apocalypse short story.

Except I didn’t come up with said short story until I was back in Iowa, with no reason to return to Chicago any time soon.

And for the life of me, I couldn’t remember which way the doors to the sea lion tunnel opened–in or out, handles or push-bars. In the context of the story, such minor details seemed crucial.

See the whole thread:  https://twitter.com/AMulderWrites/status/720833454435229696

 

I started with Google Image search, plus a quick jaunt around the zoo website. But oddly enough, most people’s pictures focused on the exterior of the sea lion pool, or–incredibly–the seals themselves.

Eventually, I shot off a quick email to another Chicago Semester student who’d interned at Lincoln Park Zoo, asking how she was, if she’d be willing to read a story draft, if she minded a zombie tribute in her honor, and–oh yes–about those doors?

 See the whole thread:  https://twitter.com/AMulderWrites/status/709437630933405702

 

She was good, willing, distinctly pro-zombie, but didn’t remember specifics on the door situation. She did turn out to be a valuable resource later, when it turned out my scattered memories had my characters going through one section of the zoo backward.

My quest continued. I trawled Google images with the steadfast determination of someone with way too much time on their hands. I planted not-so-subtle hints begging Chicago friends to visit the zoo on my behalf (It never panned out). I creeped upon YouTube vids of innocent families’ zoo trips, and when they, too, focused mainly on actual animals, or edited out all the walking from place to place, oh how I cursed them.

 See the whole threadhttps://twitter.com/AMulderWrites/status/711040853137960960

 

I grew embittered. Ever more selfish. Though I did enjoy discovering video of a ghost tour which claimed old corpses are encased in cement under Lincoln Park Zoo’s Farm.

Eventually, I wound up on a forum for zoo workers and enthusiasts. There, at last, I found a picture section with extensive shots of each exhibit, in order, as if walking through section by section. The lion exhibit’s moat which originally escaped my memory. The fountain in the children’s area, in full detail. The fake customs office and wall displays that everyone ordinarily cruises past. Floor materials were still not the main focus, but they were at least present, meeting my needs.

The only things missing were the doors on the sea lion tunnel. At which point I essentially said, “Screw it.”

See the whole threadhttps://twitter.com/AMulderWrites/status/721359460166295552

 

I revised my fun ZOOmbie apocalypse story, delighted the former intern with her grisly in-story fate, watched and livetweeted a terrible moviecalled Zoombies on Netflix (which wasn’t technically research, but was still rather fun). Then I sent my story off to the market I’d had in mind and waited.

One day later, I got a personal rejection with praise for the premise and character throughline, but accurately stating that the plot–“exploring the zoo”–wasn’t gripping enough.

This exemplifies the dark side of research. While I knew the treacherous lures of trying to include everything in your draft, I still fell into that snare at the bottom of the rabbit hole.

See the whole thread here:  https://twitter.com/AMulderWrites/status/725181153456607233

 

So, lesson [re]learned, I put my zoombie story into timeout while I rethink the plot in question (I do have some ideas, but no energy to overhaul it yet, and since there’s no shortage of zombie stories at the moment…).

At least I’d reached the bottom of that particular rabbit hole, and would never let such a tangent happen again.

Until…

See the whole thread here:  https://twitter.com/AMulderWrites/status/733821817891086337

 

If I had to choose between forums by zoo fans or by beekeepers? Zookeepers have better visual aids, but beekeepers have more entertaining anecdotes and a real gung-ho attitude.

See the whole thread here:  https://twitter.com/AMulderWrites/status/735637148410335233

 

And by the way. While ZOOmbie story is still in limbo? The ZomBEEs story just sold at pro rates (announcement pending).

Have fun researching, folks. Enjoy your next fall down the rabbit hole, and mind the snares at the bottom.

For a fuller account of this particular descent into desperately-sought minutiae, I’ve compiled most of my research livetweeting into this Storify:  https://storify.com/AllisonMulder/research-rabbit-hole-zoombie-story

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boajvjak_400x400Allison Mulder  grew up in assorted small Midwestern towns, and credits the internet with nurturing her nerdiness. She writes fantasy, science fiction, and (often by accident) horror. She terrified several neighbors with her first pro sale, a creepy tooth fairy story published in Crossed Genres Magazine. Allison also has fiction forthcoming in Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show. With patience, sensitive equipment, and a fully-stocked backpack of granola bars, you can sometimes glimpse her at  allisonmulder.wordpress.com . Or track her far more easily on Twitter at @AMulderWrites, where she broadcasts any significant life happenings, gushes over her current fictional obsessions, and uses far too many X-Files gifs.

Follow Allison: Webpage / Twitter 

 

 

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Historical Research Addendum: Using Wikipedia as a Portal

When I speak about Historical Research one of the things I always mentioned is using Wikipedia…as a portal.

I talk about one way in which Wiki became invaluable to me in researching 1902/1903 Portugal.

I used it extensively as a portal to Portuguese Wikipedia.

Let me give you an example:
Here’s the English Wiki Page for Matosinhos, a town where part of The Golden City is set.

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As you can see, there’s hardly anything there. Apparently English speakers don’t care much about this town.

But if you look down the left sidebar, you can see several other languages available.

When I click on Portuguese, I get this version of the page:

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You can see that there’s a LOT more information on this version of the page. There are also dozens of links on the Portuguese version that I can follow, both to other pages in Portuguese Wikipedia, and to external sites. Each of those might have links to dozens of other sites…and on it goes.

So I used Wiki this way to help me slip into Portuguese research. If I tried to do research via a search engine in Portuguese, I would be overwhelmed. I wouldn’t know where to start or which sites had any validity. With Wiki’s help, though, I have a starting place.

But I don’t speak Portuguese! you complain.

I speak very little, and that I had to learn for writing these books, but there are always machine translators out there that can give you a leg up. You can use the Bing Translator, but Google has one as well. (Keep in mind that these are machine translations, and are only ‘better than nothing’.) In fact, in Chrome (my web browser), there’s a small icon that appears on the right side of the address field (where you type in the web address you want to visit) that I click on and it automatically translates the page to English.

Admittedly, machine translations are iffy, but they’re better than nothing.  Between my poor Portuguese and the machine, I do a decent job.

In addition, if you hop to another Wiki page, you can double check to see whether there’s an English version. That page may have similar information.

To research for Book 3, The Shores of Spain, I’m now having to hop over to Spanish Wiki a lot. Since my Spanish is better than my Portugese, this is easier for me, but I spent a lot of time in the Catalan Wiki as well, and that’s a great place to go.

It’s still proving a very useful research trick, in everything I research.

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Next week: Moving on to other Internet Sources

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RRH Confession #7 
In 1903 Catalonia, there were a gazillion religious holidays (days that businesses were supposed to be closed). Most years had about 120 days that there were supposed to observe (for religious reasons). 52 of those were Sundays, but that left about 70 other days. That meant that you could count on most weeks having two religious observances.
Because my characters were in Barcelona for about a week, I scoured and scoured the internet, trying to find a list of all those dates for 1903, and simply never did. I sank several hours into it, and finally decided that my characters would simply miss any of the bigger celebrations.
(If your historical characters are in a predominantly Catholic city, make sure you at least know the day for the patron saint of that city, because that will be a huge festival…)

How (Not) to Talk to a Writer #7

“All writers are equal, but some writers are more equal than others.”

This episode is mostly about writer-on-writer talk. Lately I’ve seen a lot of talk about what it means to be a ‘professional’ writer (approval of a writer’s association, a book contract, making a ‘living’ at writing*…) versus a ‘hobbyist.’

I do believe that Chuck Wendig summed up my feelings on this best with this graphic:
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Just because someone doesn’t meet the same criteria you set out for ‘professionalism’, that doesn’t mean they’re not a writer. They may be choosing not to pursue writing ‘professionally’. Or they may just not have reached the paying aspect of it yet.

A very smart woman once told me “Be nice to newbie writers because you never know which one will be the next J. K. Rowling.”

Will we be perfectly polite and helpful and stoke everyone’s feathers all the time? No. We’re human. We only have so much time and energy. And I, for one, am barely keeping my head above water, so I’m not critiquing for -anyone- right now. (Note how poorly I’ve kept up with my blogging schedule.)

But it never hurts to be respectful of other writers….no matter where they are on the ‘ladder of success’…

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*I dislike this standard. What, precisely, is a living? Is this enough money to get by if you’re traveling around with a backpack, living in public parks, and eating McDonalds every meal? Or are we talking about being Castle, here?

Most writers don’t make enough money to quit their dayjobs and still be able to support their family. It’s not a living. I certainly haven’t made enough from my contract with PRH to support one person for a year, much less myself and two airedales….

Airedales eat a lot.

The Eventual Emergence of Extinct Animals Epic Fantasy

This the fifth in a series of guest posts by authors who, like me, have found themselves falling down into a Research Rabbit Hole, often with hilarious results. Because this is the true danger of research…it sucks you in!

 

GUEST AUTHOR: LAURA ANNE GILMAN

Creating the world of the Devil’s West was an education in ways I hadn’t planned – western North America pre-1803 is not the world of gunslingers, cowboys and cardsharps quite the way people think of the Old West, and even though I’d known that I hadn’t quite understood it until I started checking the sorts of guns and supplies that would be available back then…

But this isn’t a story of that kind of research.

The magic of the Territory is one that manifests itself within the natural world – you can’t create something new, only modify what already exists.  So when I had to create magical threats, I had to stay within those parameters, with the additional limitation of using – whenever possible – mythology from the American continents.

Act-of-God events, check. Digging into local weather patterns, playing with the ideas of tornadoes and earthquakes and all the natural phenomena the land mass is heir too.  But I needed living, breathing threats, too.

Okay, I said to myself.  Natural world.  Actual history. Dangerous entity. How hard, in the wilds of north and south America, could it be to find something….

Bears, okay, meh.  Bison, no.  Cougar/mountain lions….  They were all too…familiar.  Too obvious.  I wanted something different.  Unexpected.

So I opened up the Great Rabbit hole that is the American Museum of Natural History.  And then the US Fish and Wildlife Service website.  And good-bye about a WEEK.

Look, let me be your Object Lesson.

Seriously.  Unless you have a laser focus, just don’t go there, not in person, not the website, not in Google search: don’t.  Block them from your browser.

Did you know the Eastern Elk (now extinct) had an antler rack of up to six feet?  SIX FEET?   That there’s a very large salamander species called “hellbender?”   I lost almost an entire morning playing with that idea.

On the longer-ago-extinct side, did you know that there used to be a massive (seriously, one-ton massive) armadillo waddling across north and south America?  And a 10 foot long ground sloth?  (Ten. Feet. Long.  2,000 pounds.  It doesn’t HAVE to go fast at that point, it just has to SIT on you).  I tried to get that into the book, I swear, I really did.  Maybe in a short story…

And that was before I even got to the pterodactyloids.

Some day, damn it, I’m going to write an extinct animals epic fantasy.  Because I’ve got about 30 pages of notes and a dozen bookmarked sites cued up….

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biophoto

Laura Anne Gilman is tcold-eye2-coverhe author of the popular Cosa Nostradamus urban fantasy series of novels and novellas, and the Nebula award-nominated The Vineart War trilogy.  Her newest project is  the Devil’s West series from Saga / Simon & Schuster, beginning with the award-nominated, Locus-bestseller SILVER ON THE ROAD, and continuing with THE COLD EYE.

 

THE COLD EYE will be on shelves January 10th, 2017.  Read an excerpt here or pre-order it now

 

Follow Laura Anne: Website / Twitter / Tumblr / Facebook

 

 

RESEARCH FOR WRITERS OF HISTORICAL FICTION, #5

So for the next couple of weeks, I’ll be talking about some ways to use….Wikipedia.

I know, I know, some of you don’t approve. If you look at my slide below, it makes the point straight off: You have to take Wikipedia with a grain of salt. 

The truth is, Wikipedia is moderated and updated by a bunch of volunteers, a small handful of whom have an agenda. They change and alter things to fit their whim, thus rendering a great site occasionally problematic. If you’re ever curious about what goes on in the background (and all the infighting about sentences and sources and changes) click on the tab that says “Talk” and you’ll see where the administrators have been discussing possible changes to the page in question.

But that aside…

Wikipedia has a LOT to offer. Seriously. I donate to Wikipedia because I use them so much.

But I know some of the tricks. So in the next couple of weeks, I’ll show you some things to look for.

The slide below is, by the way, much cooler in my presentation because it’s animated, and all the little arrows appear in turn. Here’s what they’re highlighting.

    • Words in blue indicate a link to another page within Wikipedia OR a link outside.
    • Words in red indicate links to stubs…articles with almost no content, so kinda useless.
    • REFERENCES links take you to original source material. Also, look for OUTSIDE LINKS
    • LANGUAGES takes you to versions of this page in other languages. (I’ll talk more about this later, but it was invaluable to me.)

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All of those things can be very useful. They can link you to other information about your setting that may (or may not) be pertinent to your research. They can kick you to other sites, ones that give you MORE information. And they can help you get an inside view on other people’s perspectives on the same place/event/person.

(For example, when working on After the War, I spent a lot of time reading the various language pages regarding The Battle of La Lys/Operation Georgette. The English version, the Portuguese version, and the German version were all quite different–particularly in how many words the Portuguese got.)

So what one needs to do is think of Wikipedia as a stepping stone. It get you somewhere else, and that in itself is worth a few dollars a year for me!

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Next Week: More Tactics for Wikipedia

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RRH Confession#5

I spent a ton of time researching the Igreja de Bom Jesus de Matosinhos. That church only appears in a few sentences in The Golden City, but I wanted to get it right!  It was only when I actually visited Matosinhos in 2012 that I realized…….

…..that I’d described the Igreja de Bom Jesus de Matosinhos IN BRAZIL!

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It turns out that there’s a church with the same name in Brazil, named for the statue that resided in the church in Portugal. The statue itself is the BOM JESUS DE MATOSINHOS (because it was fished out of the ocean near Matosinhos), not the BOM JESUS de Matosinhos. (Fine distinction there.)

Here’s the one I wanted, in Portugal:

largo-igreja-parque-25-abril-1

Fortunately, I was able to catch the mistake in edits by removing a sentence. Whew!

How (Not) to Talk to a Writer #6

“You write _________________? Oh, I don’t read that. It’s kind of __________________.”

Photo via Pixabay

Photo via pIxabay

You can fill those two spaces in with a) whatever you write, and b) whatever negative adjective you’ve heard before. But generally, this statement is rather insulting. The questioner may not mean it that way (or they might) but it’s about one thing.

The genre ghetto.

I don’t know if people who write Romance are as familiar with that term as most Speculative Fiction people are, but the genre ghetto is the term for any genre that’s considered lower than some other genre.

You know…people who read Literary Fiction think all the genres are crass. Romance readers think Science Fiction is only for boys. SciFi people think that Romance is stupid and predictable. Suspense writers think that Cosy Mystery writers are clinging to Agatha Christie’s skirts. The Mystery people think Fantasy is either all about Sex Fantasies, or Elves (or both.) And everyone thinks Erotica is poorly written and not up to the story-telling standards of their own genre.

Can’t we all just get along?

No reader (or writer) can read everything that’s out there. It’s just not possible. But it’s also true that a lot of us read a lot of different things.

I never read Romance until one of my college roommates handed me Dorothy Dunnet. But now I read it quite regularly. One of the things that I love about it is that it’s predictable. I know what I’m going to get when I open Mary Balogh’s newest novel. (When does that come out, BTW?) I LIKE THAT. It’s comforting.

I read Mysteries. I read YA. I occasionally hit Science Fiction. I read tons on Non-fiction.

All of those areas have their value. But a lot of readers don’t read everything.

 

So I’m humbly suggesting some revisions of the above statement. How about these:

“You write ______________? Oh, I’m not very familiar with that. What makes a book _______________?”

“You write _________________? Oh, I haven’t read much of that. What is your book about?”

“You write _________________? Oh, I should give that a try. It sounds interesting.”

 

So what have you heard about your own genre from someone who’s never read it?

 

Samurai Sh*t

This the fourth in a series of guest posts by authors who, like me, have found themselves falling down into a Research Rabbit Hole, often with hilarious results. Because this is the true danger of research…it sucks you in!

Guest Author: Lyda Morehouse

This is a story of how I lost a day of my life to the history of toilets in Japan and learned something important about the nature of love while, literally, contemplating sh*t.

I’m an anime fan. Several years ago, I decided to try my hand at writing fan fic.  My professional contracts had dried up, but I still had a keen yen to write.  I ended up starting an epic gay romance soap opera set in the universe of Bleach.  All you have to know about that anime is that much of the action in Bleach takes place in the afterlife, which, for reasons of style and plot, is roughly based on Edo Period Japan. I was writing about characters who lived in this samurai-style Land of the Dead, and, there I was, composing a very humorous, drunken love confession, when one of my heroes, being overwhelmed with emotion, suddenly needed to barf…

I paused.

Where do samurai barf? I had no idea what toilets were like in Edo Period Japan.  

Thus began my deep dive down the research latrine rabbit hole.  

Into Google, I think put something deeply obvious, like, “Toilets in Edo Period Japan.”  The first place I ended up was here (Edo Toilets), where I learned about something this author calls “Soukouka (惣後架.)”  

I was immediately enchanted/horrified by the idea of a series of outdoor, public stalls where the door is some kind of half-wall thing that only covers the lower parts of your body. The author of this site also gives you this lovely image of early advertisement for various apothecaries plastered on the walls and the graffiti that you might find within.  

Fascinating imagery, but, alas, completely unverifiable.

In fact, if you put “Soukouka” into your search engine, all you get is a YouTuber in Japan who posts pictures of their cats.  

So, that was probably a bust.  Besides, I didn’t really want my paramour to have to run all the way down the street to a public toilet.  He’d never make it in time, for one, and, secondly, he was in the estate of an upper class noble.  So I was left with the questions: Indoor plumbing? Chamber pot? What?

Then I found the promising title: How to Poop Like a Samuraibut it turns out this is not an article about what toilets might have been like in samurai era Japan, but a manifesto of manliness (I kid you not) and how to be prepared for a mid-toilet battle.  

Finally, I found an article of the history of toilets in Japan called simply, Japanese Toilets , which introduced me to the concepts of “night soil,” “Asian squat toilets,” and a “wooden scraper” for cleaning. According to this source, I could at least allow my heroes toilet paper, since apparently something similar to the modern version made of thin, tissue paper like washi was in use by the Edo Period.

That was a relief.  The idea of trying to describe the ‘scraper’… well, it scared the sh*t out of me.

At this point my mind was swimming with toilet possibilities, but I still had no real sense of whether or not a high-class noble in the Edo Period would have a toilet nearby and what it would look like.  

But, like you do, I ended up getting distracted by the fascinating culture of toilet etiquette in modern Japan.  I found out, for example, in this light, fun article entitled 5 Kind of Strange Things About Going to the Bathroom in Japan that toilet slippers (separate from house slippers!) are required.  There are toilet paper vending machines! (7 Things You Need to Know Before Using a Toilet in Japan: There might even be urinals in the women’s bathroom or no walls around the men’s bathrooms.(

Then there’s this fascinating device called an otohime, the “sound princess,” that you can turn on when you need to cover the sound of your tinkle.  The discussion of that led me to this bit of toilet history from the Japan Times–which was at least from my target time period—Masking Toilet Noise May Date Back to Edo.  According to this article, for high-ranking guests a servant might be required to stand outside of the toilet deploying something called Otokeshi-no Tsubo (the urn for covering sound)–which apparently was basically a tub of water with a plug that could be released to make the sound of falling water.

In the course of all this, I find out, too, that November 10 is Toilet Day in Japan on a site called “Japan This!”.  Even though I never found out what one DOES on National Toilet Day, I finally got a visual of something I end up using later in my soap opera fic, which is a thing called the Nara Period squat toilet.  

At this point I start to wonder, what else can I possibly learn about toilets without ever finding out if chamber pots were a thing in Edo Period Japan?  

Then, on a site called “The Rumpus,” I stumbled onto this amazing memoir about toilets in Japan.  I kid you not, this essay is literally about how toilets in Japan are daily acts of love and respect.  I recommend reading the whole thing. It’s full of wonderful bits of culture and so, so much about toilets…including a  spooky urban legend of a female ghost that lives in toilets and how she disappeared with the advent of the modern flush bowl.  “The Japanese Toilet Takes a Bow: A Personal History.” 

But, did I ever find out if I could use chamber pots in my story?  No.  It was now midnight, and I’d spent the entirety of my waking hours reading articles about toilets.  So what to do?

In a last ditch effort, I Googled: “chamber pots in Japan”… and found several images, including this:

By Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=973741

By Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Done in two seconds! Damn you, rabbit hole. Damn you.  But, now I feel well-versed should I ever need to take a leak in Japan!

 

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lam2Lyda Morehouse is a science fiction and fantasy author. Her first four books, the LINK Angel series (Archangel Protocol, Fallen Host, Messiah Node, and Apocalypse Array), blend cyberpunk technology with unconventional religious themes. She is the winner of multiple national awards, including the Philip K. Dick Award‘s Special Citation of Excellence (2005),Shamus Award for Original Paperback featuring a Private Investigator (2001), and the Barnes & Noble Maiden Voyage Award for debut science fiction novel (2001)

(Bio via Wikipedia, Photo via Website)

Follow Lyda: Website / Facebook 

 

 

Google-Fu: Internet Research, Librarian-style

Okay, folks!  Buckle in and get a whopping serving of Research How-To from our guest ACADEMIC LIBRARIAN: Stewart C Baker!

 

Google-Fu: Internet Research, Librarian-style

As an academic librarian, research is something that’s near to my heart. One of my favorite things to do is dig up obscure articles and books on a topic and delve into them, compare them to one another, and arrive at a description that’s as close to accurate as I can make it.

So it may be a bit surprising to learn that the first place I often turn to when I’m starting my research is Google. As a librarian, I probably search a little differently than most people do, but all the same it’s true.

The Internet sources Google (and/or your search engine of choice) trawls contain a wealth of information. Unfortunately, they (and any other kind of source, to be honest) also contain the potential to supply a wealth of misinformation. Knowing how to find research materials are just part of the battle, in other words—you also have to learn how to read between the lines and determine what’s likely to be accurate and what’s likely to be questionable.

With that in mind, here are a few tips that can help you find and assess information on the World Wide Web (and beyond):

1. Learn to Search More Efficiently

In my experience, the way most people search the web is through “natural language” questions like “How can I feed my cat toast?”

A more efficient way to search is to just pull the keywords out and drop the rest. In this case: feed cat toast

Boolean searching (AND, OR, and NOT) can also make a big difference in results. In most search engines, “and” is implied, so you don’t need to add that. Other types of search operators, though, can be added to most search engines, although how you do it may vary. Google has a handy cheat sheet of search operators you can use, such as before a word for “not” or putting OR between two words to find one or the other.

So if I wanted to find out how to feed a cat toast or buns, but NOT hamburger buns, my search might look like this:

Feed cat (toast OR buns) -hamburger

Memorizing operators isn’t usually necessary, because Google has an advanced search option that will parse it for you (and presumably other search engines do, too).

Disturbingly, this search gets me 860,000 results, including one titled “Vegemite for cats.” The more you know, I guess. . .

2. Search by Domain

Another useful trick is to limit your search by top-level domain (e.g. .edu, .gov) or by website.

Searching just academic websites can often get you more reliable information when it comes to scientific or historical research, although there are of course reliable websites outside academia as well.

On Google, you can add a domain to your search by typing site: and the domain at the end, or you can use the advanced search to pre-filter.

If I take our feeding cats toast search and limit it to .edu domains (educational institutions in the USA), this narrows results to 34,600. (Why, people, why?!)

It’s worth noting that domains vary by country. Searching .edu websites will not get you UK university (.ac.uk) or Australian ones, etc.

Wikipedia has an exhaustive list of top-level domains, if you want to find a specific kind of website.

3. Search by Date

This is perhaps less useful for fantasy and historical fiction, but for science fiction in particular it can make a huge difference whether the source you’re citing is from 1995 or, say, last week.

How you will do this varies by search engine, but in Google it’s easiest to enter your search and then click Search Tools at the top:

Or, again, use the advanced search.

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4. Assessing Results

Finding things, as I’ve mentioned above, is only half the battle. Once you have a page with information that looks good, you need to figure out whether it’s likely to be authoritative and accurate.

There’s no sure-fire way to do this, but here are things to look for:

  • Authorship – Is it easy to tell who the author is?
  • Reliability – How reliable is the author likely to be? (I.e. Are they an expert in their subject area? Do they have a history for being a pioneer in the field?)
  • Recency – As above: how recent is this information? (particularly important in the sciences, but also in other fields)
  • Relationship – Does the author have any conflicts of interest (relationships) that would lead them to misrepresent information? (e.g. A creationist providing a ‘non-biased’ summary of the theory of evolution; an Apple executive posting a review of an Android phone)

As a mnemonic, you can just remember: ARRR!

If you look at any source you find (Internet or print) with these in mind, you’ll be taking the next step that not many bother with: figuring out whether or not what you’ve just read is likely to be accurate.

 

5. Go Beyond the Googles

It’s worth realizing there are sources beyond Google. Here are some sites I like to use for more specialized research:

  • Google Scholar – Okay, this one’s still Google. But it only searches academic stuff! You can often find free copies of articles by looking for “PDF” links on the side. Note that a lot of the links will require you to have an account or pay (ridiculous) amounts of money to access the full text of articles.
  • org – A non-profit Internet library, with tons of Public Domain material including books, videos, and photos. Great for finding historic photos and primary source materials (i.e. those produced by people who actually experienced historical events).
  • Project Gutenberg – Free public-domain ebooks. Another good source for historic, primary source materials, as well as old and out-of-print books.
  • org – A database of Open Access (free to read) scientific papers on physics topics.
  • Wikipedia’s list of academic databases and search engines – Other databases to find scholarly articles and papers (sort by “Access Cost” to bump the free ones to the top).

 

As for learning how to avoid research rabbit holes?  I’ll let you know how to do that some other time. first, I just have to find this obscure middle-French manuscript that’s going to make the setting details in a short story I abandoned six years ago super accurate. . .

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Stewart C Baker is an academic librarian, speculative fiction writer, and occasional haikuist. His fiction has appeared in Writers of the Future, Nature, Galaxy’s Edge, and Flash Fiction Online, among other places. Stewart was born in England, has lived in South Carolina, Japan, and California (in that order), and currently resides in Oregon with his family­­—although if anyone asks, he’ll usually say he’s from the Internet.

Follow him: Website / Facebook / Twitter

 

How (Not) to Talk to a Writer #5

Did you know that on page 37 of Book 1 of Series X that you got _______________ wrong?

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This is one of those conversations that every author dreads.

There’s always something wrong. Always. We just can’t create perfect work. It’s impossible. And once something is published (save for e-books) it’s very difficult to change anything.

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(Let me give you an example: When I wrote the very first bit of The Golden City, I set it in Venice. That lasted about one day, but I had already given 4 characters Italian names. When I switched the setting to Portugal, I somehow missed changing one of those names to the Portuguese spelling. Yes, I know it’s wrong, but…I can’t change it. I can’t fix it. I can come up with a convoluted explanation for why that character uses an Italian spelling (I do have one), but in the end….I can’t fix it. Sorry.)

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Some people are honestly trying to be helpful when they tell us these things. And if it’s something that the writer -can- fix, it does help.

Some people just enjoy commenting on that sort of thing. They love catching other people out. It’s their hobby…

Authors try hard get everything right, but sometimes even choose to get things wrong. Intentionally, I mean.

Here’s my example:
I had a sentence where someone said “…kill two birds with one stone.”

I quibbled and quibbled and quibbled over ‘correcting’ this one, because the Portuguese saying is “Matar dois coelhos de uma cajadada.” That’s “Kill two RABBITS with one stone.”

The more and more I thought about it, I came to the conclusion that English readers would be thrown out of the story if I used ‘rabbits’ in that sentence, and they’re my audience, not Portuguese readers. So I used ‘birds’.

And so someone -will- eventually come up to me and say, “Did you know that on page X of The Golden City you got the saying wrong? It’s really…”

So please try to be patient with us writers. We’re not perfect…