Authors--me absolutely included!--think they know everything. No, seriously, we do. I have argued the most obscure points of things that I've never, ever done--or will do--and can get totally pedantic over details. And, you know what? I’ve often been wrong and still argued my point without stopping to think it through. (*cringe*)
The point is that authors don't know everything. (I hated typing that. :-D)
Research is absolutely necessary to bridge that gap, but conducting good research can be tricky these days. The internet, which is a marvel and a wonderful thing, is also a hotbed of false information, incomplete information, information that seems to say one thing when it really meant to say something else, and—interestingly—a stunning lack of information on some topics.
I love to research though (as you may have noticed if you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time) and I try to compile my research into something approaching an interesting blog post and share it. That doesn’t mean you should ever just take me at my word, of course. Finding more sources is important, as is reading up on the topic at hand. But, I thought I’d do a post on researching topics, which is really more about how I research topics.
Generally, I start with Google and Yahoo. No one search engine is going to have everything, so it’s good to use different ones. I also sometimes start at Wikipedia when I’m researching online. Now, Wiki is not a credible source, simply because it’s so easy to change the info and citations and blah, blah, blah. It really isn’t, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a great resource as a place to start. Seriously. It shouldn’t be the end of your research, but it can be a wonderful way to get an overview of a topic and to find out where you can go and what you need to search in order to learn more. Just don’t get lost on it, or base all your research on it.
Once you have a general idea of what you’re looking for, you can start the more targeted searches. I like to look for specific phrases which are in someway unique (or largely so) to the topic at hand. The more general your search phrases, the more unrelated results you’ll get.
Once you find the information, you have to look at where and who it’s coming from. Some websites are just more credible than others, and while there are sites out there with good information that aren’t obviously credible, they mean more work for you. You have to verify what they tell you, and you can’t just assume they know what they’re talking about when they don’t give you any reason to. Some sites, such as .edu and .gov sites are—generally speaking—more credible. When it comes to .org sites, it’s down to the organization which publishes them. If the organization is credible and cites credible sources for the information given, you may not need to verify any further, but… You may. It’s down to your judgment.
Blogs may or may not be credible. For instance, take me. I am not an expert on anything. I don’t claim to be an expert on anything. My posts about geology (or whatever) do not list citations and, while I do my research, I am not a geologist (or whatever) and could well be wrong, wrong, wrongity wrong. (Yes, I hated typing that, too.) Or maybe I’m using information that’s out of date. Or maybe I was out of my mind at the time. (Hey, you don’t know.) However, I try to provide information from a writer’s and worldbuilder’s perspective. I try to link the research I’ve done to the ways it can be practically applied in worldbuilding and writing, so the spin that I present may be useful because it sparks ideas for the use of the facts. If you check my facts, and you find that credible people (people with actual authority on the topic) tend to say the same things about those facts, you may find me credible. (Or you may not, and that’s totally cool.)
But regardless of your opinion on my credibility, my spin (linking facts to worldbuilding and writing) may still be useful to you. You may think, “You know, I should go check about the types of mountains there are, I think there’s something off there,” but my reasons for saying it’s important to know what types of mountains you’re worldbuilding may still be valid. And I may still have a point about how that affects the economy of your culture.
So blogs and the like, even if their facts cannot be considered credible, can be useful. And, if you happen to come across a blog discussing oceanography which is written by a well-known and well-respected oceanographer, you can probably consider them pretty credible. (Unless, of course, they’re saying that the oceans are filled with yummy, melty cheese, in which case you might want to verify a bit before you go diving in with crackers.)
Also, remember that even research--as thorough as it may be--cannot show you what the real-life experience is like. While I heavily endorse research and the digging out of facts, some things aren't actually facts. One person may do things one way, and insist that that's the right way, but that doesn't mean they're correct. It doesn't mean there aren't other ways of doing it, or that their experience is typical. Varying your sources helps, getting more than one point of view means that you can verify common things like terms, theory, common facts, etc. The things that more than a few people agree on tend to be the most factually correct or at least representative of the widest range of experience (assuming those people have some authority on the topic, of course).