Monday, December 10, 2012

Let's Get Started

Welcome to Finding Stuff, a blog on Internet research techniques for fiction and nonfiction writers that will help you find nuggets of history to extend or enliven your narratives. Each post focuses on a different aspect of research, from the very basic “go to your local library” to the more esoteric “using digital maps and imagery,” or “pushing search engines to their limits.”

I’m one of those writers who loves to include myriad details as a means of giving a strong sense of place and time in a work—“verisimilitude,” some call it. When writers ask me how to find all this stuff, the three words that come to mind are Patience, Perseverance, and Imagination.

Patience. The Internet is a very big place. The amount of information available seems almost incalculable. When you start in on your search don’t expect to find everything at once. Take little chunks at a time. Take one word, one name, and follow it to its digital conclusion.

Perseverance. Keep plugging away at your topic. Try every variation. Try combinations. Try it now. Try it tonight, tomorrow, next week. Follow every link and lead, and when a search show promise, repeat the process: try every variation, try combinations, try it now, try it . . .

Imagination. “Think outside the box” is a terrible cliché that’s been floating around for so long it’s become a “paradigm.” But when it comes to thoroughly researching a subject, you need to do just that—you need to use your imagination to think up search paths, no matter how wild or crazy they seem. Sometimes these will lead you nowhere. But sometimes . . . you strike gold. 

For my ongoing project about an 1870’s mining swindle, I profitably employed PPI to build a portrait of one of the main characters: a fellow we’ll call Asbury. A quick initial Internet search showed many sites that discussed an autobiography he self-published in the early 1900s. That gave me a basic (though one-sided) bio. By patiently following every lead, over the course of a couple of months I was able to construct a three-year timeline of his activities, including, for example, the date of his arrival in New York from a promotion trip to England, the ship he sailed on and the friends who sailed with him; the hotels he stayed at in New York and London; the date of his arrival in San Francisco on the transcontinental train; and the things he did and the people he met when he got there. This information not only helped me track his movements, but gave some valuable insight into his personality.

This search took me through newspaper archives on two continents, court transcripts, steamship passenger lists, memoirs and histories, and a variety of first-person accounts. And all this was accomplished digitally from the comfort of my home office. 

Next time we’ll look at how to find and use digital books on almost any subject you can imagine.

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