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This guest blog comes to us courtesy of Dan Clarke, who writes blog articles on how to do public speaking among other things. Here he talks about something which is close to my heart as a former scientist, a teacher and a writer – research and how to do it effectively without resorting to Wikipedia all the time.
5 Ways of Getting Good Information Cheaply
One big problem some writers have, is finding all the necessary details to make their story work. Most writers, I hope, have never been arrested, many can’t explain the newest computer programs in any great detail, and nuclear physics is beyond most peoples general retinue of skills.
So how can writers find the information for their stories or articles, without spending lots of money, taking a college course, or doing something illegal?
It’s actually fairly easy, if you use any of these 5 methods.
  1. Interview People
    Most people like talking about themselves, their jobs or their hobbies. When you need to know how something works, how a job gets done, or an interesting fact, look around your community and find people who can help.
    You’re planning a romance story involving firemen? Ask the fire department, if you can have an hour long tour and ask firemen how they do their jobs, what’s the most dangerous thing they’ve experienced and anything else you can think of.
    You want to learn about hacking into a computer for a mystery, go to the local high school or better yet, college or computer security firm, and ask for a basic idea of how to do it, along with any computer jargon you’ll need. They probably won’t give you step by step instructions, but it will be enough general information for most readers.
  2. Visit Museums, Schools, and Libraries
    If there is a museum nearby, consider visiting and asking the curators some questions. Museums are full of interesting facts and people that generally enjoy talking about them. When you have to know about ancient and not so ancient history, or technology and animals, call up the museum and ask if you can talk with an expert.
    Colleges and universities are like museums, although actually meeting the professors can be a bit harder. Either phone or send an email to the office that you need, be it history, sciences, math, etc, and politely ask if you could meet a professor. Be sure to explain what you need, and if its by email, provide a list of questions you will be asking.
    Reference libraries are another great resource, that are sadly underused. Most large libraries and all university libraries have reference librarians. These people, or computer systems in cheaper libraries, and point you in the right direction for various facts and statistics. All you have to do is ask.
  3. Volunteer, Learn By Doing
    If you live in a city or even a small town, you can learn a lot of useful things for your book by volunteering. You may just do it for a week, or you could do it on a full time basis, either way first hand experience can be vital to making a book seem real.
    If you want to know how an election is run, volunteer with a local political party you support, or at least like. You can watch how they plan meetings, get a bit of an insiders view of what is happening and its a good way to make new contacts.
    Want to know what its like to be homeless or a runaway, volunteer at a food bank or safe house. You can do some good for your community and learn how people survive on the street.
    For stories about actors, join a local acting group, even if you have no acting abilities you can see things from behind the scenes as you work the lights, make costumes or other things.
  4. Read Blogs and Forums
    Many people will post on blogs and forums about their trails and experiences at work, hobbies and life. If you spend a few days going over the various blogs and forums related to what you’re researching, you can find lots of useful information.
    Web forums can be even better than blogs, as you can ask questions directly, and often recieve useful answers.
    The important thing is to not just focus on one or two forums or blogs. You could easily get bad information, you need to back check and confirm through other forums, blogs and resources to make sure you have the right info. But simply knowing what to ask after reading a blog, is better than flailing around blindly.
  5. Table Top Role Playing Games
    Bear with me here.
    I’m a role player, I love table top games, and own many RPG books. Some of them, many of them actually, are inaccurate, unscientific and try for cool rather than accuracy.
    However there are a few RPG companies that focus on realism. Science fiction, military, and horror RPG companies often have a few books that deal with the realities of various era’s, sciences, tactics and groups.
    More importantly its done in an easy to read manner, that’s easily understood by laymen. So if you’re too shy, or unable to talk to experts, and don’t want to pay lots of money on thick reference books, buying a 10 or 20 dollar RPG book, that focuses on realism can be the answer.
If you’ve searched the internet, looked through the books on your shelves, and mined your family members for information, remember there are other sources of information. Get out and talk to people, do interviews, join groups and look in unexpected sources. Don’t rely entirely on easy research via Wikipedia and Google (use them at first then expand), do some footwork and get what you need.
Dan Clarke, is a teacher, freelance writer and occasional public speaker in Nanjing, with five years experience at finding information and faking being an expert. He currently blogs at Speaking in Public, providing information on public speaking from the very first step to the last.