Sometimes, you're writing nothing but a blistering hot love scene, or a character study, or a drabble. In those cases, your canon is all you'll want or need. But there are other times - Yuletide, a Big Bang, your own original novel-in-progress, that sprawling AU epic that's been taking up all your spare imagination for weeks - when you're going to want the sort of details that add texture and depth to a story.
You may be blessed with a home library that includes just the reference books you want or a local library with sympathetic librarians. If not, there's always the Intarwebs ... but sifting treasure from trash can be a challenge.
Let's take a look at some ways to make the World Wide Web cough up the details that you need to write the story that you want.
With examples involving the historical novel Frontier Wolf.
This past December, I was working on a story based on Rosemary Sutcliff's young adult historical novel Frontier Wolf. At the end of the canon story, our protagonist Alexios and his comrade and friend Hilarion are posted to Belgica. To write the story that the requestor wanted, I needed to find out a lot about Belgica, about the Roman legions in the area in that time period (which was around 343 AD), and about Roman underwear.
Getting Started with Google
Google has so much information in its collection these days that it can be difficult to narrow the field to the exact piece of information you want. Here are a couple of ways to focus your search:
Restricting by the Top-Level Domain
Way back when, everyone assumed that sites on the WWW ended with .com. It's pretty clear to most netizens nowadays that in fact, there are a variety of possible endings to the URL (Internet address) of a Website. These endings are known as top-level domain names. If you're taking a first pass at research, one of the handiest is .edu, which is assigned to educational organizations in the United States and sometimes elsewhere. Owners of Websites with this ending range from universities to primary schools.
To make Google restrict your search to .edu sites, add site:.edu to the end of your string of search keywords:
roman belgium site:.edu
A similarly useful top-level domain name is .org, meaning organization, but you have to be a little more wary with a .org site. A scholarly society like the Mythopoeic Society is a .org, but so is the Better Sleep Council, which is actually (despite its caring name) an industry group of mattress manufacturers!
Include a Distinctive Keyword
When you're searching a huge repository like Google, a search string of common words may bring back a lot of miscellaneous material that doesn't tell you what want to know. If you can come up with a less common word that's related to your topic, you might be able to pull up a more useful set of search results.
For example, if you were trying to get into the topic of what Roman men wore under their togas and tunics, you might search on
You'd get a scattering of useful articles in the results. One of them mentions a garment called a subligaculum (which was rather like a pair of briefs). Turn around and add this unique word to your search, then run it again:
roman underwear subligaculum
This time, the search results contain a more useful set of sites right on the first page.
Google's Other Collections
You have probably already tried Google's Image Search for pictures of characters, clothing, and so on, but it's worth remembering that maps and diagrams can also be images. It's also possible to get results from English keyword searches on sites that don't use the Latin alphabet, such as Japanese or Arabic sites, because the graphics may be labelled or named in English in the underlying HTML code.
Google Maps can be a big help in getting your story firmly grounded. By using the Street View, you can easily "visit" locations all over the world. This can be especially useful for contemporary settings in genres ranging from urban fantasy to romance. After getting a map of your general location on screen, zoom in on the spot that you want to check out, then use your mouse pointer to click and drag the little orange "person" from its position above the zoom control on the left side of the map. You can put the Google person down on any street that is highlighted with a pale blue line as you move across the map, and Google will present a photographic view of the location. Experiment with dragging left and right on the photo view to rotate your point of view in the streetscape and with clicking on the photographed street "ahead" of the viewpoint to "walk" in that direction.
Working with Wikipedia
There's good reason why people roll their eyes at the idea of trusting Wikipedia as a source. The fact that just about anyone can edit a Wikipedia article means that some strange pieces of information make their way into this online encyclopedia. Still, Wikipedia can make a good starting point for research.
Finding That Distinctive Keyword
More times than I can remember, a Wikipedia article on an obscure topic has given me a distinctive keyword to use in a Google search, as described above.
Attached Materials and References
Some Wikipedia contributors work very hard indeed on their articles, which might include detailed reference lists (perhaps with links to other Websites) and attachments such as maps and illustrations. For example, when I looked up Roman Belgica on Google, I found a Wikipedia article on Gallia Belgica, which turns out to be the proper Latin name of the area at that time. One of the attachments to the article was a beautiful map of Europe under the Romans that included the names of the native peoples in the different areas, the Latin names of the towns and cities, and which Roman legions were stationed where.
Try clicking on the links in Wikipedia reference lists. The sites that are linked may help you decide how worthwhile the material in the original Wikipedia article is, and they may turn out to be great sources of information on their own.
Trying a Translation Site
The Web is full of amusing sites put together by using machine translations. The sad truth is that translation programs are still pretty crude when compared with a skillful human translator. Still, if you happen to find material in another language that looks like it might be useful and you don't happen to have a human translator available, a site like Yahoo! Babelfish can at least get you started.
Putting It All Together
One of the most useful finds in my research for the Frontier Wolf story involved using some of these resources and methods together.
I was getting frustrated with how little material seemed to be available about the Romans in Belgica, especially when I remembered all the online resources I was able to find for Roman Britain for an earlier story. It finally occurred to me that (duh!) material about Belgica might well not be in English but instead in languages that are spoken today in the area that the Roman region occupied. I started with French.
I used Babelfish to find the French words for Roman and fortress. Then I used Google to search on those words along with Gallia Belgica. I found an online version of an early 20th century manuscript called Gallia: Tableau Sommaire de la Gaule Sous la Domination Romaine. By using a word search in the document on the names of locations on the map from WIkipedia (mentioned above), I found the parts of the manuscript that contained information about the fortress locations. I then used Babelfish again to get a crude translation of those parts of the manuscript.
I now knew where I could put Alexios' next posting: along the Rhine, near the big legionary town of Confluentes. The French document says that this town is now known as Coblentz. Another Google search revealed that the current name is actually Koblenz, in Germany. While I was reading about Koblenz, I discovered that the area in which the city is located is known as the Rhine Gorge. By searching this on Google images, I got pictures of the landscape so that I could describe the topography of the place in which Alexios now found himself. I was also able to use this regional name to get more information on the plants and animals of the region by using a regular Google search.
One Final Resource
LiveJournal has a community named little_details. It's listed last only because the community doesn't want to tell you how to find things that you could find yourself with Google and Wikipedia: see the community rules on their profile. If you have made a brave effort with the research tips presented here and you still aren't getting anywhere with the details you need, try posting your question there. Examples of some recent questions they've answered are:
- Boar hunting - injuries and dogs
- Lake Superior weather signs
- Term of endearment for a same-gender friend in Bengali or Hindi
- Permanent / limited mobility sports injury
- Choice/free will in Jewish thought
As you can see, the potential range of subjects for which you can get help is huge.