No matter what you’re writing about – historical events, medicine, astrophysics or construction – there will be a need to thoroughly research that world, to ensure you get it right. Even in futuristic or alternative future/history stories, there will be a need to gain some accurate information about past or current events.
There are a million ways to do this. The most important thing is NOT to rely on one source. Just like a dozen witnesses at a crime scene will inevitably give a dozen different versions of the event, you need to scour the evidence you find and accumulate what you need from it or the most commonly accepted information. Don’t just read a book about the subject and believe the author knows everything about it. Look at Jack the Ripper – as an unsolved case, we’ll never know the answer to who he was, but pick up 6 books on the subject and you’ll be bombarded with a dozen different suspects.
Oh, and NEVER blindly believe anything you read on Wikipedia. It’s a great source for information, as long as you then go on to check and recheck it, but the important thing to remember is that ANYONE can edit the information there. So just because someone adds a “fact” to an article, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s true.
Here are a few of my favourite places to look:
History.com – you might be surprised that a TV website can have useful information, but I’m not just talking about articles when I mention this as a source for accurate information. Their programs are always historically accurate, as much as possible, and they often show you the right places to go.
Institute of Historical Research – This is a UK site, but it has A LOT of information about a lot of topics and goes right back to 1921, when it was founded. “Founded in 1921 by A. F. Pollard, the Institute of Historical Research (IHR) is an important resource and meeting place for researchers from all over the world.”
BBC History – Another UK site, but one that also has videos. It’s a little like History’s website, but the information rotates more regularly.
This one may seem obvious but – Amazon – There is no better source of information than books. Biographical, Autobiographical or Historical Non-Fiction, you’ll find what you need in a multitude of books. You collect a few about your chosen subject – Ancient Egypt, Medicine in the 1800’s or Forensics – then read them cover to cover, making notes as you go. If you can match the information you’ve noted in all the books or the majority of them, then you have some solid information to work with and research further.
British Army – Read about what it takes to make an army recruit, the different stages, names and rules of their training. You can also follow links to their YouTube page, to watch videos of real recruits, to help you figure out what you need.
HelpGuide.org – This is a great website for information about mental health and well being. I used this recently, to gain real, useful information about schizophrenia and the treatments, diagnosis and how to live with it for a book. There are great links, if you can’t find what you’re looking for here, so that you can get where you need to be.
Criminal Justice Career Guide – This may seem like a strange one, but it’s actually very good. I have this for my Forensic work, to compare this post – 10 Forensic Myths Spread by TV – to make sure I don’t include any of it in crime stories.
The key to all research is that you do your homework! Don’t believe the first thing you read. Don’t trust blindly. And, most of all, check as many sources as possible. Watch TV documentaries, check YouTube, check serious, academic websites and articles. Do everything you can to make sure your information is reliable.
And, if you want to change that information for dystopian, alt-history stories or paranormal novels, then you can work with a solid foundation and see where there’s wiggle room for your ideas. Most all fiction concepts – from vampires to zombies, to m-preg and bio-disaster novels – all have their roots in truth.
Think about what you want to research, make a few notes on key words to Google and likely places you might find that information. Keep an open mind. Places like The Open University have some free courses that you can do, to gain the information you want in a quick, timely manner, without the studying that would normally be involved.