Quick and Dirty Research

thumbwinA few hours back, my friend Umberto Pignatelli, he of Beasts & Barbarians fame, asked me to take care of the documentation of the project he’s currently working on.
I was extremely happy and proud of his request, and I was quick to accept his offer.
He was equally quick in pointing out he needs a few titles, and on topic.

Umberto of course is right.
Documenting a project, putting together a bibliography, can swallow up an author like quicksand.
I should know – after all, I am good at documentation.
And my house is full of books.

91t-iDrve2L._SL1500_Let’s see – my bibliography for my first novel, The Ministry of Thunder, goes over 100 volumes, including general history books, specialist books, personal diaries and memoirs, novels and comic books.
Plus a fathom-deep list of websites.
Tens of movies.
Music, too.
Wading through it all took me the best part of one year – but I was reading a topic that’s always been of interest to me, so I had a few years of reading and book-collecting.

For GreyWorld the bibliography is equally long and complicated.
Just as with Ministry, I’m covering topics that have long been part of my interests.
But again, we are talking about a few dozen books.
And all the rest.

Obvious that Umberto was scared I’d present him an arm-long list of titles.
Research requires time, because you have to find the resources, yes, and then you have to read/listen/watch/study the stuff.
So, it can get a little daunting.

But then, let’s say we are researching a topic, say to sketch and outline a series of scenarios, or to draft a sourcebook.
How do we keep the to-read list short and on topic?

Here’s a few ideas.

First – Wikipedia is your friend.
Obvious? Yes, it is obvious.
But Wikipedia is certainly a good starting point.

51dTExu6ApLSecond – Dummies, Idiots and Teach Yourself
These self-teaching/reference books are good as a one-stop reference for specific topics (and you find lots of topics covered).
Right now on my desk I have The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Oceans (quick-and-dirty reference for my next novel), Teach Yourself Latin (good for spicing up the next Aculeo & Amunet short story – a much needeed crutch, considering I took my last Latin lesson in 1985), The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Wicca and Witchcraft (first research steps for a project about occult detectives I’m outlining).

Third – a good reference library
Second hand bookstores and used titles on Amazon are your friends.
The obvious books to have handy are a solid historical atlas, a few reference books on general topics (a world history, a history of science etc), possibly something about the top subjects we usually write about (I am a pulp/fantasy author – therefore I have books about world mysteries, about archaeology and exploration, about history in general1, and about Asia as that’s my personal interest).

what_is_moocFourth – MOOCs
That’s Massive Open Online Courses.
Check out Open Culture, Coursera, Iversity and Futurelearn.
There’s university-level online courses about everything.
taking up two/three hours a week for an average four to eight weeks, this is absolutely the best way to get in deep into a subject while having fun.
I did take a MOOC for the GreyWorld project – and I’ll probably take a few more.

And then what?
Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive, of course – especally if you’re researching historical topics, you might find old books freely available for download.
After all, if you’re researching a steampunk setting, a few Victorian books might help get a period flavor, and really understand the mindset of the time.

Once you acquire a general perception of the topic you need, you can later expand with specalist texts on specific sub-topics.
But for starters, a self-instruction text, a set of web links and a solid online course might be all you need.


  1. but I do also write science fiction – but I was trained as a scientist, so science books are not just for my writing. 
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