©2011 Hampton Bush (Visit Hampton Bush’s Home Page)
This article is from a presentation I gave at an online writer’s seminar a few years ago. I have reread it, and it is still good, so read on!
©2011 Hampton Bush
They say “write about what you know.” Unfortunately, if you’re like me and don’t know much, you have to find a way to know what you need to know. The method I used is “research.”
For years I found research to a be daunting task, certainly not for the lazy like me or the homebound. But now most needed research is rather easy. The hard part is knowing how to ask in order to get the right answers. I’ll give you several case studies a bit later to demonstrate what I do. There are several tools I now use to do my research, so I’ll just jump right in.
Tools of Research
There are several principal research tools that I use. They are:
- The internet
- The telephone
- Books on special subjects (like modern-day quick-draw gun fighting techniques) that I buy and download or have shipped to me from Amazon or get from the bookstore.
You might use the local library, though in my opinion, they’re not always the best these days. My own local library is aimed at kids, so there’s not much there for me. Still, if you’re close to a giant library, like the Los Angeles Library or some other similar one, they can be fantastic research tools, but, I warn you, you’d better learn how to ask the right questions or become an expert in library science.
If you frequently research great books for information quotations, you might try http://www.gutenberg.org/ to find almost any book you need. Project Gutenberg has the goal of making all the world’s books available free to anyone with a computer.
Let’s talk about the internet as a research tool for a moment. Most people know about Google, but there are other search tools also. Ever heard of www.ask.com ? Or www.dogpile.com ? Or AltaVista at http://www.altavista.com/ ? Or www.search.com ? How about www.metacrawler.com ? Or www.scoofers.com ?
In the past, when I didn’t find what I needed on one, I checked the others. Now, however, there are search engines that search all those search engines for you with one entry. The best of these are Metacrawler, Startpage.com and Ixquick.com. Both of these also offer total privacy for your searches and do not keep any record of what you do. Maybe I’m old-fashioned, but I like that aspect alot.
The Library of Congress at http://www.loc.gov/homepage/lchp.html is great, especially for historical data.
There are other internet research sites available. Like Owl at http://owl.english.purdue.edu/internet/tools/research.html.
Owl is a subject gateway that serves as a jumping-off place to find almost anything you need to know. I strongly recommend you check it out.
What is a subject gateway? It’s just what the name implies. Pick a subject and there will be a link to take you out to specific research locations.
Or the Librarians Index at http://lii.org/
Try them, you’ll love them.
There really are too many search capabilities to name them all here, so I suggest you run a MetaCrawler.com search on the subject of Internet Research. You’ll be amazed at what pops up.
The bottom line for me is that I seldom have to leave home to find anything I need, which is why I consider the internet the most gigantic library ever conceived. . .all at my fingertips.
Now let me explain by offering some examples of things I’ve researched.
In my current book’s prologue, I have a killer breaking into an old home, so I needed to find out how to pick a lock. Since I’d led a rather simple life, and knew nothing about lock picking, I did a Metacrawler search, and almost instantly I found not just the lock picking tools, but how to make them and how to use them. It’s only a line or two in my novel, but it is authentic, which is important to me.
Since the book is set in Washington D.C., I decided that the first scene would take place at the Jefferson Memorial. Only one problem. I had no idea where or how the memorial was laid out or what kind of foliage was around it or where the parking is located. I had no idea how the National Park Service Rangers dressed. So what was I to do? Too expensive to hop a plane to DC just to solve that three-novel-page problem. My solution turned out to be simple.
I used Google Earth to get a 3D view of the Jefferson Memorial. With GoogleEarth, a free software, I can go in for a close up; I can fly over; I even can go inside the memorial. I can change directions and look at the memorial from any angle. GoogleEarth showed me the location of the trees. I even decided where my characters would be standing for their meeting and measured how far from the memorial they were.
Google Earth, free software available from Google, solved a lot, but not all. With Google Earth I flew in directly over the Jefferson Memorial, descended, looked toward the White House, went inside the memorial, looked at Jefferson’s statue, totally checked out the place.
I even saw the trees and landscaping, I didn’t know what kinds of trees were surrounding the monument, and I had no idea how the rangers in charge there were dressed that time of year. So, I used the phone and called the Jefferson memorial. A ranger answered.
“What kind of trees are those around the memorial?” I asked.
“Cherry trees,” he said.
“What kind of Cherry trees?”
“I don’t know, sorry,” he said.
Undaunted, I did a Google search for Jefferson Memorial trees. That led me to a free pdf document which showed the history of the trees at the Jefferson Memorial and had a map showing where the different types of Cherry trees were located. That was perfect, because I wanted my two characters to meet out of sight under the trees.
I ran another search for those individual types of trees to see when they lost their leaves. The trees were quite different. My meeting was to take place under a Sargent Cherry tree. Sargents are hardy and keep their leaves until mid-November. So now I knew there would be red and orange leaves on those trees. Perfect
I still didn’t know about the ranger uniform. So I ran a search for ranger hats. I decided I wanted a cute female ranger, so that led me to a 30-page history of women’s park ranger uniforms.
It had all the photos of the various uniform stages throughout history since 1912. I kept saying “Damn it, what do they wear today?” My patience was rewarded. I finally found color photos on the last page of what the gals wear today. To verify, I called the Jefferson Memorial Ranger again, and asked about the clothes. I gave him a description of what I had found, and he laughed. “Yep, that’s it,” he said.
I had one last thing to learn. What is the weather like in DC in early November. I ran an Ask.com search and found a site with “seasonal weather” right at the top. Here’s what I learned.
Average High: 58 ºF
Average Morning Relative Humidity: 76.0%
Average Low: 40 ºF
Average Afternoon Relative Humidity: 53.0%
Mean Temperature: 49 ºF
Typical Sky Cover: Overcast
Average Dew Point: 36 ºF
Average Precipitation 3 in
Average Wind speed: 9.18 mph
Average Snowfall: 0.98 in
Average Wind Direction: S
Now I could accurately write in plausible weather as needed. I happen to like moody weather, so I picked November. The time of year is irrelevant to the story, but not to me, the writer.
One last thought. Google Earth allows me to fly low through the streets of DC, so when I combine Google Earth with my Microsoft Streets and Trips map software, I’m able to navigate easily through the streets as if I know where the hell I’m going.
One last sample.
In my last book, I had the bad guy wanting to use a helicopter to hover over a mansion in the Ozark mountains. He was going to build a bomb himself using C4 explosive and drop it on the mansion.
Only two big problems.
One, I didn’t know crap about building a bomb out of C4 or even what C4 looked like. But once again, the internet coughed up what I needed. I got pictures, dimensions and weight for the C4 sticks. They’re wrapped in oily plastic skins.
I learned how to make an impact fuse. I got everything I needed for the bomb building and later the bomb-dropping scene.
Next I didn’t know how low his helicopter could fly and escape safely, once the bomb was dropped. I needed to know how fast a Bell JetRanger helicopter could accelerate and get away before the bomb blew up.
So, I looked up Bell Helicopter on yellowpages.com. I called them, and I told them what I needed. They put me in touch with a designer pilot. I gave him the problem.
He was great. He calculated how fast the suitcase bomb would fall, which gave him the amount of time available to get away. He then explained the acceleration of a Jetranger and told me that my characters had to drop the bomb from a minimum of 500 feet up in order to have time to get away. He included how the pilot should dive away at first in order to gain speed quickly, all the details I needed.
The result was that scene was not only accurate, it was credible.
What I have learned over the years is, if you’re pleasant and not too pushy, people are very helpful. The rangers thought it was fun to help a novelist who was interested in them. So, the thing is, don’t be bashful, but know what you’re going to ask ahead of time, and don’t be lazy. Do as much homework as you can before you make the calls. Then just say, “I’m a writer, working on a novel, and I need your help.”
What’s the worse thing that can happen to you when you call? They say, “Sorry, I don’t have time right now.” I’ve never been turned down, though.
My son works at a huge prop house that services the movie industry. He told me about one of their guys researching bomb making on the internet for a movie. They wanted a prop that looked accurate.
The guy spent several days doing the research. Then suddenly there came a knock on his door and two FBI agents were there. They took him to their office and questioned him for two days before they let him go. So, it’s probably a good idea to have your excuses handy if that happens to you. <VBG>
My female romance character in the new book is a self-employed expert internet and other-type researcher, so I needed to know all this stuff, which is why I was able to make this presentation. She has to be credible, too.
I have a 7000-volume library of classic e-books on my computer. They came from Project Gutenberg, which is a world-wide effort to convert out-of-copyright great books into searchable text, pdf and other files. The books are all scanned into text using optical character recognition, proofread meticulously and made available free of charge to download at the site, which is how I got my vast library.
Nowadays, you can set Microsoft Windows to index all the files on your computer, and then use it’s search function to instantly find anything by typing in a few words. I use that, and another desktop and internet search software, called Copernic Desktop Search, to search the three terabytes of data on my computer, and to search the internet, as well. Copernic automatically searches 10 web search engines at a time, so you get great results.
Info Pack Rat
Because of this indexing and instant search capability, I have become an info pack rat. Whenever I see something on the internet I might need for future reference, I save it on my computer, and it is indexed automatically. As a result, I now have a huge reserve of odds and ends of data now available on my computer.
Even so, I still do a lot of research on the internet, but watch it. It’s addictive!