Research and the Internet

by Alafair Burke

When I was a kid, I remember my father (a writer) calling the number for the public library’s reference desk from memory.  I’d hear him say, “Phyllis, it’s Jim calling again.”  He knew their voices.  Their names.  They knew his.  For years, he always thanked the reference librarians who’d helped nail down factual tidbits he needed for his fiction.

Fast forward thirty years, and now I’m also a writer.  Like him, I also stop a few times a day to wonder whether my memory serves me correctly as I’m writing.  What year did that song come out?  How long would it take someone to drive from lower Manhattan to Buffalo? 

But unlike my dad, I don’t call the reference desk at the library for answers.  I take to the internet.  Thanks to tools like Google and Wikipedia, we have a seemingly limitless ability to pull up the most arcane information in seconds.  Google Maps allows us to take a virtual walk around a midwestern town we’ve never been to.  Online menus let us see what a character might order at a southern diner whose grease-soaked air we’ve never smelled.  I even use my Facebook friends as a modern-day version of Phyllis the reference librarian, asking my “online kitchen cabinet” for suggestions about fictional town names and the imagined decor for a successful man’s home office in the early 1980s. 

Yep, thanks to the Internet, an author’s job as researcher has never been easier. We don’t want emails from people telling us that a song playing at a character’s prom wasn’t written until her sophomore year in college, do we?  That’s why I love the archives of the Billboard Music charts. Did you know that the number one song the week of my birth was “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies?  I did.  I looked it up.

We also don’t want a bunch of thirty year old characters with names like Barbara (too old — sorry Barbaras of the world) or Brianna (too young — sorry, really really sorry).  Did you know that the third most popular name for girls in 1981 was Amanda?  I did.  I looked it up.

A Name You Will Not Find in a Baby Name Directory

One downside to online research, however, is the potential for distraction.  Finding out what song was playing at Ellie Hatcher’s prom is worth a few-minute detour from the manuscript.  But, oddly enough, I never seem to stop there.  Instead, I decide I have time to look up the top song during the week of my birth.  Then I have to watch the song video on You Tube.  Then I have to stop by my own YouTube account to rewatch, for the fiftieth time, the video of my dog Duffer walking to daycare.

Then it’s a brief sojourn at Facebook, where friends Laura Lippman and Chevy Stevens have each independently sent me a link to this awesomely happy video of a hip hop french bulldog and his mad dance movez. 

Then I have to send that link to my 13-year-old nephew, who doesn’t realize it’s a video gone viral, and really believes that the hip hop dog is my Duffer and that the boy in his undies on the couch is my husband.  And then I have to laugh about that — alot — with my sister. 

Then I have to check out the links that friends have shared on my page in response to Laura and Chevy’s posts.  One of the links is to a website featuring funny pictures of upside down dogs

Nothing funnier than that, right?  Well, except maybe this site, courtesy of Karin Slaughter, featuring super creepy Easter Bunny pictures.

Before you know it, that answer to the song at homecoming has cost me an hour or so.  Even at her most loquacious, Phyllis the reference librarian never sucked up an hour.

This year, I’ve been trying very hard to separate writing at the computer from researching (and, more often, playing) on the internet.  Thanks to a tip from Lisa Unger (wow, lots of name-dropping today.  My friend Bobby DeNiro told me never to name-drop)  — anyway, thanks to a tip, I downloaded an internet-blocking program called Freedom, which allows me to lock myself offline for however long I decide.  If a research question comes up, I can jot it down for later.  I haven’t been as diligent as I had planned, but do find that Freedom helps me get words on the page when I actually crack down and use it.

And when I don’t use it, man, do I love the internet!

So tell me ‘Rati, what are your favorite online sites these days, for either legit research or total brain candy?

P.S.  If you’re like me and goof off online, feel free to share some madness on Facebook or Twitter.

24 thoughts on “Research and the Internet

  1. Chevy Stevens

    Oh! I have to check out that website Freedom! I try to set myself limits for the Internet, but I always go over it. And then I justify it to myself be saying, "I can't shut it off. What if I need to look up something." But I'm the same way. I start off by researching the population of a town, then I'm watching cute dog videos and passing them on, then checking to see if anyone else thought they were cute.

    Do you still check emails when you are using Freedom?

  2. Alafair Burke

    Reine, That's ridiculously cute!

    Chevy, No, Freedom completely takes your computer offline. Of course, you can always check email if you're desperate from your phone, iPad, laptop, etc, but it at least takes away that quick control-tab temptation.

  3. Chevy Stevens

    Sorry, yeah. That was a stupid question on my part. Apparently I was resisting letting go πŸ™‚ It sound interesting ( and I could see myself still checking my iPhone for emails) but I worry about installing anything that messes around with my computer. Have you had any issues?

  4. Alafair

    Not dumb at all! And I've had no problems with it. It's a free download for the first few uses if you want to try it out. (and I think only 10 bucks to buy). I've been trying to get my students to use it, too.

  5. pari noskin taichert

    I have the same trajectory when I do research online, so I do try to keep the writing separate. As you know, I've gone to great lengths to do so — my creativity computer isn't hooked up to the internet.

    But favorite sites? The one that gets me too often is Huffington Post. Yeah, I go for the political slant — but it's the stupid stuff that captures me: Cute Animals, Entertainment etc . . .

    My face is really red now.

  6. Louise Ure

    Alafair, "Duffer Goes to Daycare" totally made my day. Clearly, your YouTube site is going to have to become a stop for me as well, now.

  7. Cornelia Read

    Duffer is fabulous! And I love having Freedom. My internet journeys sometimes take days. It's kind of appalling. Like mental roadtrips or something.

    Great post!

  8. Allison Davis

    I got lost in web pages that described gang tattoos — who belonged to whom, which led to links going all sorts of interesting places, like favorite guns of Mexican gangs. I had to pull back from that one. You can spend an hour wandering around for a one sentence description of a dead body. Another was looking at the SF police academy requirements and learning its history — intimately. Like that's going to come in handy. My favorite dog video that I watch anytime I'm depressed: (Who knew we all liked these dog videos?) Duffer is always a afavorite.

  9. Alafair Burke

    Allison, That pool video is amazing. Smart dog!

    Pari, I'm also a Huff Post addict (and sometimes guest blog there about law-ish issues).

    Glad other people enjoy the Duffer videos. He deserves to be famous.

  10. David Corbett

    The #1 song the week I was born was three guys in sabertooth tiger furs with receding foreheads and prominent browbridges pounding on a hollow log with mammoth bones.

    I looked it up!

    My favorite online timesuck these days is watching videos of Maria Bamford — like this one, keeping to the cuddly dog theme, in which she impersonates her pug playing the part of President Bush:

    Yeah, research is easy to get lost in. But that's always been true. And sometimes you have to wander around for a while before you find the thing you didn't realize was crucial — unexpected, mind-binding, perfect. But it's best to pursue that once you're brain-dead from writing.

    I'm not sure the Internet creates a bigger problem, just an easier distraction. Discipline's discipline. Suck It Up. Just Say No — Wait! Did you see the YouTube vid of the nuns clog-dancing to "Material Girl?" I've got it here somewhere . . .

    Lemme get back to you.

  11. Debbie

    I'm not here right now…it's just an illusion. πŸ˜‰ I have not spent the last fifteen minutes watching several Duffer videos (very cute btw, especially when your knee bumps the window in the puppy video(. In fact, I am reading through a MS for a friend who is desperately awaiting feed back! Right now, at this very second, really! Since I'm momentarily distracted, maybe I should check FB? Hmm, who am I kidding?

  12. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Research really can be a black hole. If I'm doing it, I don't let myself check e mail or do any of those other social nightmare things, otherwise the whole day disappears into the web. All those years of fanatical dieting actually hve come in handy – I just think of Internet as Cheetos and stay away.

  13. Kagey — I can always find one more book I've read that deserves a rating, or even a quick (or not so quick) review from moi. I can always find one more cool book to put on my "to be read" shelf, one more review by a friend that I haven't read yet…. you get the idea.

  14. Allison Brennan

    I love research, but still prefer reading research books and I also like true crime books or books written by experts in the field, but not specifically research books. Or visual research, like going to the morgue or SWAT exercises. THAT takes more time than online research … but I use Google for maps, weather patterns, small but important details like if a county I'm writing about has an M.E. or Coroner, jurisdictional issues, what year a specific gun or car was manufactured (and what colors! I almost screwed that up once on an older car …)

  15. Phillip Thomas Duck

    I hear you. Instead of "working" on my WIP, I surfed over here for my daily Murderati fix…just a quick minute and back to WIP. But then you added all of those lovely hyperlinks and hyperlinks are meant to be clicked on so…

  16. Reine

    OK, Alafair, it's just not fair… I checked that archives of the Billboard Music charts that you posted here, and it doesn't go back to my birthday! So now I've used up even more time rearching the history of Billboard's charts, trying to reconcile my age with history… just totally unfair. In the process, though, I did discover your father's wonderful Katrina OpEd – illuminating.

  17. Barbie

    Hey, Alafair, I'm Barbara, and I'm 21. But I'm from Brazil, so, that doesn't really count. Barbara's a completely common name for kids my age here, in their early to mid twenties. It was common enough that I shared a classroom with one (or two, this one year) a few times throughout my life, but not so common that there was one in every class, in every year. I don't see many kids named that nowadays, but I love my name and I'm glad I have it. On the other hand, it was the most popular girl's name in Chile in 2006… Just sayin'. I knew it was popular in the 50s in the US, which is the main reason why I go by Barbie (despite the fact that it's my nickname and everyone calls me that, but I use it in my social networking and stuff) — in English, my name sounds weird, and, like an old lady's name. Did you know, though, that Barbara's the 5th most popular name for women in the US and the 15th of all names?

    I research names for characters all the time. I didn't before, and was happily please to find Sarah, Jennifer and Rebecca were in the top 20 in 1977. Recently, I "met" a 30 something year old character called "Mackenzie" and had to research if it was in the top something. It was 800 something for the year I wanted, but it meant people did name their kids that, so, I went with it. I have a 31 year old Annabella, which isn't in the top 1000 for that year, BUT it's a family name, so, I think that works. Anyway, I'm rambling. Names is one of my favorite subjects EVER! (In case no one could tell).

    I hate when I'm late for a discussion when I have something to say about it!

  18. Barbie

    WAIT…. Why did I type I'm 21???? I'm TWENTY-TWO! TWENTY-THREE next month!!!! And, obviously, the memory issues are starting to show up. YAY Barbie!

  19. Alafair Burke

    Barbie, I didn't mean it as a dis. Alafair was a common name at the turn of the 20th Century and is a perfectly good name (better than good, some might say), but it definitely calls attention to itself as a character name, which may or may not be a good thing depending on what the writer's going for.

    Kagey, can't believe I forgot to mention Good Reads. I just joined recently and love it!

    Reine, I love JLB's op-ed. Glad you found it. Phillip, Glad to help distract you today.

    Allison, I agree. Google's great for everything.

    Finally, Sandy, I'm not jealous at all. It makes me terribly happy to know that he is so delighted to spend time somewhere else when I can't be home with him. He has had a back injury for the last three months so hasn't been able to go to daycare. The other day, he started to pull me in that direction, and I knew he was feeling better πŸ™‚ Pretty soon he can go back on a modified schedule.

  20. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I gotta tell you, I've blown most of my writing day today on bouncing between two different email accounts, Facebook, and AOL news, among other "research"-related sites. And I've been futzing with the same five-page opening of a book I should have finished last year. I love the Internet – I love the speed-of-light answers to my questions. But the distractions are killing me!
    I do, however, love those upside-down photos of dogs and I plan to spend the next two hours uncovering more…

  21. PD Martin

    Yep, the internet can be a Godsend or the Devil πŸ™‚ I use the manual version of Freedom sometimes…I flick the swtich of my modem off.

    But when it's on, it's easy to get lost. I remember looking up the kind of street lights a particular downtown street in LA had, mostly because it was hard to tell from Google Earth or Street View. I discovered a plan to install an 'old style' of lights in my district, but what about my street? After about 2 hours, I decided I was writing fiction!

    Another site I love (along with Google searches and Wikipedia) is


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