Writer’s Toolbox #5: Must-Have Research Tools Beyond Google and Wikipedia

This is the 300th post on this blog, and the 40th for Ruth Harris!

Ruth graciously agreed to join my blog in August of 2011, right after my out-of-print comic thriller Food of Love was accepted for re-publication by Popcorn Press. I was about to embark on the roller-coaster ride of a lifetime, publishing five novels (with two publishers) as well as contributing to three anthologies...in two and a half months.

I was amazed and honored that a New York Times bestseller and former Big Six editor would want to join my blog. I still am.

Little did I imagine that Ruth would someday want her bestselling fiction to join a book of mine between e-covers. But last November we came out with Chanel and Gatsby, a bi-coastal two-fer bringing together her Manhattan comedy-thriller The Chanel Caper, and my Hollywood comedy-mystery, The Gatsby Game.

I'm still recovering from my publishing marathon that began in mid-2011 and finally ended with the publication of my eighth novel, The Lady of the Lakewood Diner in December 2013. 

There will be more Camilla books coming. But right now I'm trying to deal with all the stuff I neglected over that two and a half year period. Seriously. You do not want to know how many things in my pantry had expiration dates of 2011 or earlier.

I could not have done any of it without Ruth taking over the blog every fourth Sunday. And her advice and wisdom have helped me survive this crazy ride.

Today she's got a fantastic list of resources every writer can use. There are many I'd never thought of. I'm especially intrigued by the name generator for multi-culti or fantasy characters. And the James Bond trivia. Who knows when you're going to need to know which Bond movie featured AbFab's Joanna Lumley, or who was the oldest "Bond girl"? And the BBC's "on this day" historical site looks like a gold mine. 

Thanks, Ruth, for continuing to educate us on this blog every month. We now have nearly 900 subscribers to our blog email, and we hit the 1600 mark with blog followers this week. We would not have the fantastic readers we do without Ruth's expertise, humor and wisdom...Anne

Writer’s Toolbox #5: Reference and Research—the World Beyond Google
by Ruth Harris

Which president came before Theodore Roosevelt?

How do you revive a dying orchid?

How fast can a rhino run?

What does SPECTRE stand for?

In the course of writing a novel, a writer—one who will never indulge in an info dump!—will often need to find the answer to all sorts of oddball questions, some of them basic, others esoteric, still others trivial but nevertheless important.

Google and Wikipedia and YouTube are the basic go-tos but there are many other sites (just about all of them FREE) that will answer your questions and, even better, give you answers to the questions you didn’t even think to ask.

Here is a brief round up of sites I have found indispensable for research including a few that aren’t usually thought of as reference sources.

The New York Times maintains a massive searchable archive containing more than 13 million articles dating from 1851. You can search by author, section, or time periods from past 24 hours, past year or by specific dates.

The Washington Post maintains a searchable archive dating from 2005. (For dates prior to 2005, there is a paid archive search.)

USA Today, New York’s Daily News and the BBC also offer valuable search options.

Time magazine’s archive extends from 1923 to the present and includes the weekly’s covers for a visual look at what made the headlines week by week during most of the 20th Century and all of the 21st.

From hair dos to manicures, grunge to prep: If you need a clue about what your characters are or were wearing or detailed info about their grooming routines, Vogue is the place to go.

Need to jog your memory about books, TV, movies and music? Try Entertainment Weekly.

The dish on celebs? Need inspiration from human-interest stories? What about The Sexiest Man Alive? People is the place to go. And not to forget: James Bond trivia.

Want to ask an expert? Sign up with Quora where you can choose from over 400,000 topics to create a feed of information tuned to your interests. Google Plus has communities devoted to just about any subject you can think of.

Messing with the Mafia? From Omertà to La Cosa Nostra, from Al Capone to John Gotti, the answers are here.

For the raciest in bathing suits or a who’s who and what’s what in the locker room and on the gridiron, the skating rink, the baseball diamond or the tennis court, Sports Illustrated will clue you in. Writing for a younger demo? SI Kids has the deets.

Pinterest, eBay and Etsy are usually not considered research sites but they are gold mines of ideas presented visually and, in the case of eBay and Etsy, items described in detail—a big help when you don’t know what this or that knicknack or collectible is called or when you want to find a popular hobby or off-beat interest for a character.

Need a name for a Catalan or Chinese character? Want a name for a hillbilly, a witch, a rapper? A name with ancient Celtic, Biblical or literary allusions? Try the name generator at Behind the Name

Authors of Regency fiction will find information on law, language, clothing, and the peerage plus links to other relevant sites from Regency author Joanna Waugh.

The Pew Research Center offers a searchable database covering everything from demographic data and scandals to international affairs and global religious beliefs.

Seeking a “fact checker for the internet?” Check out RefDesk.com.

Streetwise slang? Here’s the guide to current lingo: urban dictionary.

Hung up for a movie or TV series quote? This site will probably know.

Consult the Oxford dictionaries in a variety of languages including: British English, American English, German, French, and Spanish. The Oxford biographical dictionary contains bios of almost 60,000 people, English and beyond.

A dictionary on steroids, WordHippo tells you the meaning of a word and also finds synonyms, antonyms, words that rhyme with it, sentences containing it, other words starting or ending with it, its etymology, and much more. Type in what you are looking for, choose the appropriate category and WordHippo will come up with the results, as well as give one-click links to other data for the word.

Setting your story during a particular day in a certain year? Get the scoop on what happened on that day the BBC News OnThisDay site.

There’s a research blog for the history of graphic design at the University of Southern Missisippi.

Contemporary art? Try MOMA in New York City or the Metropolitan Museum. In San Francisco, try the SFMOMA, or MOCA in Los Angeles.

Renaissance art?

African art?

Folk art?

Science? Get information about Mind & Brain, Plants & Animals, Earth & Climate, Space & Time, Matter & Energy, Computers & Math, Fossils & Ruins at ScienceDaily.

Health and medicine? Rely on the experts at the Mayo Clinic.

Still need more? Try the Smithsonian:

The US Army has an extensive, searchable site that covers American wars from the Colonial era to the current War On Terror in the archives of the US Army Center of Military History.

Stuck? Out of ideas? Don’t even know what to look for next? Tell this site what you’re interested in and they will recommend websites/photos/videos: StumbleUpon.

We are living in the information age. Just about anything a writer wants to know or needs to find out is just a few keystrokes away. No more trips to the library. No more scrolling through hard-to-read microfiche. No more searching through heavy tomes to find that one piece of information you're looking for.

Explore beneath the surface to find the pearl of info that will make your book stand out from the crowd: the right research, properly used, can make all the difference.

What about you scriveners? Do you have anything to add to Ruth's list? Are any of you old enough to remember what research used to be like before the Internet?


The Chanel Caper by Ruth Harris is $2.99 on Amazon USAmazon UK and Nook | Kobo | iBooks

Here's what USA Today bestseller, Vanessa Kelly says about The Chanel Caper in Love Rocks:

"In an ongoing effort to upmarket her own outdated style and rekindle some romance in her marriage, Blake buys a faux Chanel handbag from a street vendor. This sets off a chain of wild events that includes murder, explosions, counterfeit drug rings, and the pursuit of suspects and warlords from Shanghai to Afghanistan. The Chanel Caper is a romantic comedy, a thriller, and a send-up of the big city lifestyle in the wake of the global financial crisis. All the disparate elements of this very funny story are tethered by the engaging Blake, a smart, sensible, and dryly witty heroine intent on saving her marriage. It’s definitely a romance for the grownups, set against the backdrop of the bright lights of the city that never sleeps."

And for a limited time, you can get The Chanel Caper  together with The Gatsby Game for the same price: only $2.99!  

Hollywood and Manhattan: it's Bi-Coastal Comedy!

Available at
NOOK, Kobo, and Amazon US, Amazon UK, Amazon CA


Win a critique of your novel from a literary star and Cambridge professor. Winners will get full critique valued at $800. Contest sponsored by the Writers’ Village Foundation, a not-for-profit UK organization established to help new authors. The top eight submissions will win a session of personal feedback from the award judge, novelist Michelle Spring, a Royal Literary Fellow at Magdalene College, Cambridge. Entry fee is $19 and the deadline is 31st March.

GLIMMER TRAIN FAMILY MATTERS CONTEST $1500 prize, plus publication in Glimmer Train Stories, plus 20 copies. $15 ENTRY FEE. They're looking for stories about families of all configurations. It's fine to draw on real experiences, but the work must read like fiction. Maximum word count: 12,000. Any shorter lengths are welcome. Deadline: March 31.

Dark Continents Publishing's Guns and Romances anthology. They're looking for previously unpublished short fiction from 3500-9000 words. Any genre as long as there's a tough protagonist, weapons, and... at least one reference to music. Sounds interesting. Payment rate is a one-off of $20 per story plus a percentage of the ebook royalties. Publication estimated in late-2014. More info on the website. Closing date for submissions is February 28.

Glamour Magazine "My Real Life Story" Essay Contest NO ENTRY FEE. $5000 prize, plus possible publication in Glamour. Creative nonfiction. Must be factual and appropriate for a Glamour audience. 2500-3500 words. Deadline February 1st.

Dog Lovers! AMERICAN KENNEL CLUB FICTION WRITING CONTEST NO ENTRY FEE. Submit one short story, maximum 2,000 words. Entries can be on any subject, but must feature a dog. (But it can't talk) Prizes $500, $240, $100. Deadline January 31.

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