Internet research while writing, aka “You Googled what, now?!”

Two thoughts occurred to me tonight, while I was on hold for half an hour, listening to music I think may have been composed by monkeys. Not trained monkeys either: ones that fling poop at you at the zoo.

One is that writers really have it a LOT easier these days than they did 20 years ago. Hello, internet! (And yes, I know 20-year-ago writers still have it easier than writers 40 years ago, when they were either typing or handwriting their novels. But I wasn’t alive 40 years ago, and this is all about me. It’s my blog post. :p )

I went to university in the ‘90s and I remember how slow it was to research anything. Don’t get me wrong, I love libraries. But when you’re in the middle of writing a scene and you suddenly want to know the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow, you can’t beat the internet for giving you a quick answer! (Or the correct phrasing of a Monty Python quote.)

The other thought I had is that I Googled (and Wikied) some seriously odd things while writing my first two novels.

Here is a selection, off the top of my head:

  • The average weight of a six-year-old boy.
  • The colour of happiness.
  • Bluebottles, aka Portuguese Men O’ War.
  • The Greek muses.
  • Intensive care units. One of my best friends ended up having a short stay in one after some surgery, so he helped fill out the details. The things people do for friendship; seriously! What a champ!
  • Different types of European faeries. Look up the sluagh some time; I bet you $10 JK Rowling based the Dementors on them.
  • Charm bracelets. I actually ended up with a Pandora bracelet because of this research (oops)!
  • The shape of a shark’s jawbone.
  • French cakes.
  • Car keys, tyre irons and the buckles on seatbelts. When you’re writing a book about faeries suddenly you have a burning desire to understand what common metal items are made of.
  • Godwin’s Law.
  • The phases of the moon.
  • Management of NSW national parks. Even more boring than it sounds.
  • The various gaits of horses. Not just what they’re called (I knew that) but the rhythm.
  • Canberra’s elevation above sea level.
  • Antique furniture.
  • Sidelights. You know the long, thin window that a lot of houses have beside the front door? Those things.

The funny thing is that none of this is big stuff. That’s partly because my books are urban fantasy and I set them in my home town, so I didn’t need to invent a setting from scratch. I have a huge amount of respect for those that do this, and do it well. All the little details I looked up are because I’d visualise a scene and know what something looked like, but not necessarily know how to describe it well. Hence, the internet.

In his book On Writing*, Stephen King says that the key to good description is to get a clear mental picture of your scene, and then to describe the most interesting details—not going overboard in the process. I’m still learning to get the balance right, as my most recent bout of editing has demonstrated to my acute embarrassment. But being able to look up something I’ve imagined in my scene, when I don’t know what it’s called (for example, the sidelight), is invaluable.

Imagine that I'm Frodo and Sam's the internet.

I love you, internet. Never leave me!

What’s the oddest thing you’ve looked up while drafting?

* If you haven’t already got a copy of On Writing you should go buy one. Right now. Go!

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