Must you make every little detail in your novel or story seem authentic? Every location, real event or technical fact? Of course you must, allowing for creative licence. Otherwise, your reader will cry "Baloney!" Your story just won't be plausible, unless you're writing fantasy (and even then).
But how do you find the answers to even the whackiest or most obscure questions - quickly and without charge? Expert researcher Joanna Jast shows us three clever ways.
Have you ever regretted giving your main character a modern occupation or an obscure hobby? I certainly have.
Of course, you want to create interesting characters that readers can relate to plus settings that enhance the story. You want your characters to be realistic and your worlds believable. You need to do your research, fair enough. But what if your library doesn't have any books on your characters’ high-tech careers? Or the Google search on their fancy hobby brings up only expensive e-books?
The world is moving so fast, even the best libraries can’t keep up with the pace at which new knowledge is created. Traditional research methods are no longer good enough. But how far can the Internet really help us?
Sure, GoogleMaps and YouTube can show you a place so clearly you’ll feel like a resident. But they won’t do much more than that. A Google search will throw up more answers to your questions than you can handle. But can you trust those answers?
As a buddying novelist with a flare for characters with unusual backgrounds, I’ve done my share of trailing through dusty shelves and swallowing snarky remarks from experts.
But you don't have to!
Here are three tested ways to get the information you need without all that drama. And get it fast. Moreover, they’re free and you don't even need to leave your house.
1. Enrol into a MOOC
Need some general knowledge on a subject? MOOCs (or Massive Online Open Courses) are created and run by some of the best experts in the world.
These are e-learning modules, consisting mostly of videos, with additional reading material, interactive quizzes to test your knowledge and discussions boards. There are thousands of MOOCs available online, most of them for free, on topics ranging from solar energy, to sound engineering, to medical imaging, to building flying robots. (Yes! They’ve got it covered!)
This is a twist on good old distance learning, but with no charge and instant access.
The main MOOCs platforms are: edX (www.edx.org), Coursera (www.coursera.org) and Iversity (www.iversity.org). All you need is to register with an email address. You can enrol into a live course, do it and earn a certificate - or just enjoy it.
You can also join a course in progress or view an archived one to get access to previous information.
A Tip: If, like me, you don’t like learning from videos or podcasts, head straight to the captions or transcription sections.
Discussion boards are usually for posting modules-related questions or homework and they’re answered by the instructors’ team. Ask your question in the correct section and get the answers ‘from the horse’s mouth’. Not all the courses have discussion boards, so check before you join. It will save you time.
Several platforms have courses on similar subjects, so check the content and preview the course before enrolling to see if it will meet your needs.
2. Ask online experts
Need an expert to ask a specific question about building a flying robot at home, but don't know any? Don't worry. The Internet has them in buckets. How do you tell a real one from a cheat? Use trustworthy platforms.
My favourite places to fish for experts are LinkedIn and Quora – both free with a wide range of interests covered. If you’re not on those networks yet, consider joining.
LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com) groups allow you to verify the qualifications and credibility of people who answer your question by checking their profile, but you need to be a group member. Find groups of interest using the search tool.
Before you join a group, check its quality by clicking on the Information and Setting tab to see the stats. You want a group that is active (activity level), but in a meaningful way (comments made vs new discussions and promotions). Choose active groups where members comment on threads.
For open groups, the acceptance to the group is automatic, but if the group is closed, your application needs to be accepted by the group admin. Often they require you to have a connection to the area of expertise the group refers to, so it pays to message the admin with a short note that you would like to learn more about [xxx].
Quora (www.quora.com) is another platform worth considering. It’s dedicated to asking and answering all sorts of questions. You can browse previously answered questions and check the up-votes. They (usually) indicate the quality of response.
You can post your own question ‘to the public’, under your nickname or anonymously, and wait for someone to answer. Or you can direct it at specific people. (Use the acronym ‘A2A’ – ask to answer). Quora will suggest experts for you. You have to ‘pay’ for this privilege, but you get 500 credits when you join the platform and there are ways of earning more credits (so you can spend more on asking more questions).
You can also use Facebook groups or Reddit. It’s a bit hit and miss in terms of quality of answers and your replies have a tendency to be tongue-in-cheek, but feel free to experiment.
A Tip: A word of warning on this ‘ask an expert’ technique. In my experience, sadly, asking an open and honest question - ‘I’m writing a book on (…) and need some help’ - tends to attract snarky remarks and mockery.
Don't explain why you need the information. ‘A hypothetical scenario’ question, or even ‘a ‘friend of mine told me…’, while not a lie, will get you around the issue and is more likely to generate quality responses.
Prefer a more traditional approach to research? Try e-books, but with a twist.
You don't have to buy anything. Try your local or university/college library first. If you’re not successful, head over to Google. Google Books (https://books.google.com) have access to over 30 million scanned books in their digital archives.
You can search and read public domain books for free and in full. For many copyrighted books, you can still preview parts for free, but as this is set as a percentage of the content, choose carefully what you want to view. The same caution applies to those books with ‘snippet’ view as you get a limited number of ‘snippets’ (max three).
A Tip: When using e-books you don't own for research, make traditional notes in a separate file or database. And if you cite those works in your own books, be sure to credit the source.
To make the most of limited access to public domain books, don't use the keyword search/index. Head to the contents section first to understand how the knowledge on the topic is organised before jumping into details. This approach will enhance your overall understanding of the topic, key terms and relationships among them. It will also help you find your answers with more precision, before you run out of your ‘free preview’ quota.
Unusual careers, hobbies or settings can be a source of interesting twists for your story and refresh your writing. Now you know where you can find free information on modern professions or pastimes, don't be afraid to them to your and your readers’ advantage. Go on, explore!
What great research sources have you found for your stories? How do you go about digging up the facts you need? What has been your experience of Internet sources? Are they likely to replace the traditional trip to the library or a chat with a friendly expert? Share your thoughts in a comment below. Every comment gets a fast helpful reply.
Joanna Jast is a productivity and fast-learning fan. She writes on how to accelerate your journey to success and achieve peak performance.
Grab her 4-part free course on improving focus in your life at www.shapeshiftersclub.com and become an even more productive writer!
Or read more on fast and effective methods of learning anything here.
Posted by Joanna Jast. Posted In : Guest Posts