Sunday, January 26, 2014

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 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

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


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.


  1. Many of those databases come from newspapers and magazines.
    For anything movie or television related, IMDB, After that, Rotten Tomatoes. (Hey, movie research is important!)
    Ruth, glad you were able to help Anne with her blog all these years.

  2. Brilliant stuff for (all you real) writers, I'm sure. This is also useful for the student, especially the student of history. With that in mind, I would like to offer a coupe of caveats, both minor, to this wonderful resource list.
    1) Wiki is a marvelous option not least because the articles usually come with further links. But the application should be very cautious if the subject of your inquiry is still alive. Anyone can post, including those who don't like a person unfairly, etc. Imagine if a troll-mob posted all the content- brrrr... but for deep history, or factual information about physics (not living physicists), it's great.
    2) Along the same lines, I think it's important to point out that for most of science and especially including medicine, the real nut to crack is how folks looked at it BACK THEN (depending on your genre). The latest, most modern state, yes, there's info. But finding out, for example, how people thought about contagious disease in the Middle Ages- that's another layer down. VERY hard to avoid falling into the assumption about "how things were"; as a team-teacher I see it all the time, the shock in students' faces as they realize there was no electricity, and water didn't move around your house by itself.
    Bravo, Ruth! A bookmark for sure.

  3. My primary tool, it seems like, is a visual dictionary. I'm not detail-oriented, so I can have a lot of trouble coming up with words that other people don't. I had to go hunting for the name of the tailgate of a truck because I could picture it, but I couldn't get the word itself. I also have saved blogs which use other descriptors for color are listed -- even though I know the words, I still have trouble calling up the word beyond the picture.

  4. Oh my gosh! Brilliant is right, Anne and Ruth! I'm posting an article about plot idea resources tomorrow and linking to this. You ladies are always a step ahead of me! Thanks, thanks, thanks for this fabulous information.

  5. Anne, I laughed out loud about the expired items in pantry. True (and scary) story: I didn't even know flour and pancake mix expired :/

    This list is AMAZING. Oh, my gosh. Never heard of WordHippo. Never thought to check out newspaper and online magazines. Sheesh. I'm tweeting and bookmarking this for sure.

    Thank you! And congratulations on the super blog success.

  6. Alex—OMG! How could I forget? Particularly since I have IMDB and RT on speed dial! Thanks soooo much for such a great addition. :-)

    Trekelny—Thank you for the excellent caveats. As we all know, everything on the internet is true, right? lol

    Linda—Thanks for adding another dimension to issues involved in info-seeking. There are lots of times when we need to know the name of some thingamajig or another and a visual dictionary is essential.

    Molly—Thank you for the kind words. Love the idea of a post on plot ideas…I will bookmark that one for sure!

    Julie—A friend of Michael's gave him a shopping bag filled with grocery items. We didn't understand why until we looked at the expiration dates. All four and five years out of date. WTF? Some friend! lol

    Glad this list is of help. There are items on it I never heard of until I started researching research. ;-)

  7. Anne and Ruth, I must first say how wonderful it is having both of you to read each week. The things I've learned here are priceless. Since I've been with you from the beginning, I have seen the amazing growth of this blog, how much you've helped other bloggers, how much Ruth helps aspiring authors and the magic that happens when you join forces.

    Thanks for the additional research links. Yes, yes, yes ... my field was research, then market research, then not-for-profit and in the days of no internet. I spent many a happy day at the Mid-Manhattan library (across from the lions) on Fifth Avenue and in Grand ARmy Plaza in Brooklyn. A total library lover, I am so grateful for the modern methods of on line research. Thanks for another great post :)

  8. Two that I revisit all the time:

    The King James Version of the Bible:

    And the complete works of Shakespeare:

    for when you know what you're looking for, you're sure it's in there somewhere, and you just can't remember exactly, and don't want to search the whole web.


  9. Thank you Ruth and Anne for the research tools. I mostly use Google and Wikipedia, but now I can expand my research to help with my writing.

    The Free Dictionary, is a great resource that includes a medical, financial dictionaries, idioms, acronyms, and encyclopedias.

  10. Florence—Thank you for your very kind words and for being such a loyal reader! Yes, research has been completely changed—and for the better!—by the internet. A disruptive technology indeed.

    Alicia—Thank you for two excellent additions to our round-up of research resources. Very much appreciated!

    Jesse—Thank you for commenting—and for chiming in with an excellent suggestion. The Free Dictionary sounds like a reference every writer will want to turn to. :-)

  11. This is great stuff! I knew of quite a few of these, but you have given me several I didn't know about. I've bookmarked this and will be posting the link on my blog as well. Thank you so much.

  12. Hi, Ruth and Anne. Congrats to you both on this great anniversary. What would we do without our Sunday posts from you two? I've learned a ton of things here, and this post, Ruth, is no exception. Wonderful! So many great sites for research. I can't wait to try them out on my next WWII novella. I usually use Wikipedia and Google but also a couple of reference books. One in particular, "The Timetables of History," by Bernard Grun is invaluable to historical writers as it provides loads of info on history, literature, philosophy, music, and science events that happened during the year I'm researching. Now if there was only a site like this online…Could be. I'll have to research it. :) Great, great information here. Thank you.

  13. Can't forget the good old fashioned public library, and yes, I used to do research prior to the Internet, and still do it from time to time.

  14. The internet has certainly made research a lot easier (a little too easy sometimes - i can spend hours "fact-checking").

    And congrats on the 300th post. here's to many more!

    Moody Writing

  15. Rosi—Thank you & thank you for linking. Glad to add to your research sources!

    mindprinter–Hi Paul, I wonder if you'll find a "timetables" on line. I hope so & wouldn't be surprised.
    "The Murrow Boys" by Stanley Cloud & Lynne Olson is about American journalists in London during WWII but there's lots of details about that era you might find useful.

    G.B. Miller—You're soooo right. A non-fiction writer I know told me that the handwritten entries on library cards are invaluable but lost on the net. Maybe those, too, can be made available one day.

    Mooderino—For sure! Sometimes tracking down the "facts" can take longer than finding the "facts." ;-)

  16. Holly Tomoly! I haven't had this much great information in a post - well, ever. I am going to keep this one for my next book. I could have used it for the others as well. THANK YOU THANK YOU.

  17. Congratulations, Anne and Ruth! Thank you very much for what you do, always look forward to reading your posts and the comments.

  18. Thanks for the tip, Ruth. Do appreciate it.

  19. WOW - that's a comprehensive list of research sites. Thanks heaps.

  20. Congratulations...300 posts! Wow. And all valuable. As is this one. Thanks to both of you for sharing your wisdom so graciously.

  21. Great list - thanks. Will be bookmarking a few.
    And yes, old enough to have used libraries and have gone into university "stacks" for obscure references. As mooderino noted, the Internet is much easier but you do have to check more carefully. I've taken to PDF'ing or archiving some web pages as I've had book references disappear because some sites don't keep archives. Even science sites.

    Wiki's are great but do be careful with many of the "quotes" sites. Some are full of bogus mis-quotes or mis-attributions. Nelson Mandela's death revived a few of those. One I've found very useful is WikiQuote

  22. Thanks a lot Congratulations. Will always keep a printed copy nearby for reference. It is easier that way for me, though I do bookmark now and then. .

  23. Wow! Lots of great links I hadn't thought of. Thanks so much for sharing them all.

  24. Patricia—THANK *YOU*! :-)

    Happy Amateur—Anne and I appreciate your comment. :-)

    Mindprinter—Paul, Hope it helps.

    CS—Thanks. Sites suggested by our commenters are a welcome addition to the list. Can't believe I omitted IMDB and RottenT!

    Christine—Thank you. Not sure what 300 feels like, tho. ;-)

    for now—Thank you for the kind words. Thanks, too, for the WikiQuote suggestion and link. Much appreciated!

    Wyn—Thanks! I'm with you. Sometimes having a print out is easier than bopping back and forth between screens. :-)

    Natalie—Thanks and glad to hear the links are helpful. I've found that sometimes going outside the usual reference sources will trigger off-beat ideas that really lend energy to a book.

  25. Ruth, that's brilliant and VERY comprehensive! I'd just like to add obituaries to your list...I think if one is looking for unusual characters or something to nudge your writer's imagination, obituaries are a must-read, especially the New York Times (usually very well written)!

  26. As Claude wrote: that was brilliant to think of so many different sources ... especially THE NEW YORK TIMES! I am going to bookmark this page, Ruth. Great post as always.

  27. Claude—Sensational suggestion! The NYT obits are indeed well written and an endless source of inspiration for characters and incident. Thank you! :-)

    Roland—Thanks for the kind words. It's a cliché, but doing something just a little different can generate all kinds of interesting and exciting ideas.

  28. Hola Ruth!

    Does Encyclopedia Brittanica and the card catalog at the library ring a bell? :) I watched a Youtube vid on a Marriott property the other day to get a feel for the room. The Marriott site had a floor plan. Handy! I've gleaned info from tourist info sites and real estate websites, too. Great post. Thank you!

  29. Jennifer's comment reminded me of one of my favorite research tools: real estate sites! I look for houses or apartments in my character's price range in their town or city and go to the sites with photos and floor plans. Some even give a photo of the view. It helps so much. Even if I don't use all the details I find, it helps to picture where the person lives.

    I usually go car shopping for them too.

    Ruth had so many tools in her list, I didn't think people would be able to add to it, but you've added a lot of great ones! Thanks to Ruth and all of our clever readers!

  30. Jen—Oh, yeah! Many hours spent with EB and CCs! ;-) Thanks for the brilliant idea. Another great addition to our list of resources for writers in need of info/ideas.

    Anne—Our readers are the super fantastic best! They have contributed so many superb research sources for writers and everyone else in search of that errant fact or amazing piece of info. Yay for our readers! :-)

  31. Congrats on your 300th post and Ruth's 40th on this blog! I look forward to saying the same for your 400th, 500th, and 600th!

    And thanks for this great list. I also see a couple of contests at the bottom that I may enter. I'm on a listserv for writing contests but never read them. Now I'm going to start!

    1. Meghan—Hi Meghan! Thanks for stopping by and for the kind words!

  32. Fantastic resources - who knew? (Not me!) Thank you so much for sharing! I am continually amazed by how generous the writing community is :)

    1. Jo—Thanks for the kind words. The suggestions from other commenters were great additions to the list. Glad you found it helpful. :-)

  33. I love your blog Anne but it hurts my brain to read it. Not because of any faults on your part (as if I had the skill to judge) but because it is loaded with so much amazing and helpful information. And yes, I certainly do remember research before the internet. My folks were broke most of the time so it was to the library we went to look up things the hard way. Which is why, as much as I love and appreciate the world of Cyber, I will never fall out of love with the hardcover book and the way it caresses my hands. Pure joy.

    1. Donna--This cornucopia of info comes from Ruth Harris. Sometimes I'm in awe of her knowledge. She knows a lot more about the tech side of things than I do. My family was upper middle class, but I spent my childhood in the library, too. The library used to be a wonderful melting pot where kids from all backgrounds got to meet each other. That's the opener of my novel Lady of the Lakewood Diner, when the daughter of the mill owner and the daughter of a mill worker bond in the Carnegie Library in small town New England in the 1950s. That is something we will miss in the Internet age.

  34. Donna—Thank you! I hope you will find some useful info here.

    I'm another one who spent much of my childhood in the library—and that's despite (or maybe because) both my parents were avid readers and the house was filled with books, dictionaries, atlases, magazines & newspapers. I was and am a glutton for something new or different to read and the library was the perfect place to find it. :-)

  35. Use Pinterest to store images and links for locations, food and clothing for your characters, etc. In other words, Pinterest works really well for storing your research.

    1. Lisa—thanks! The cyber version of an inspiration board. Excellent idea!


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