Christian editors · storytelling · writing tips

Research Is Your Friend, Part 10

Some Handy Print Resources I Still Use on Occasion.

researchI have spent the last several weeks blogging about doing research online, and while that is certainly where most of my research takes place these days, especially when I’m caught up in writing fictional stories, there remain a number of print resources on my shelf that I continue to use. A few of these I have purchased new over the years, but many of the better titles have been found in library book sales, particularly those following a major weeding of a college or university library collection. I won’t list them all here, but I wanted to give you some good examples, in no particular order of importance.

 Word Dictionaries

I still like to use a print dictionary, because I find browsing through such a resource always snags something I might miss if I simply look up a word in an e-dictionary.

The RandomHouse College Dictionary, Revised Edition (Random House, Inc., 1975): Okay, I’m dating myself, now, but this was the dictionary I used in college the first time around, and while it is over 40 years old, it still allows me to comfortably browse multiple word meanings.

Brave New Words: The Oxford Dictionary of Science Fiction (Jeff Prucher, Ed., Oxford University Press, 2007): If you write science fiction, this is a book for you. When I first became serious about my sci-fi writing, I often found myself wondering if the language I was using was too strongly influenced by Star Trek. This dictionary told me, however, that it was okay to use the word “starship” to describe the interstellar ships in my stories, because the word was first used in a story published in Astounding Stories in December of 1934—in all likelihood, the same place Gene Roddenberry acquired it!

Dictionary of Word Origins: The Histories of More Than 8,000 English-Language Words (John Ayto. Arcade Publishing, Inc., 1990): There is actually a 2011 edition of this title available in Amazon.com today. As I’ve mentioned before, the history of word origins can be particularly important when writing historical fiction. Contemporary jargon does not belong in a historical story, and if you can’t find the history of a word in the free, online edition of The Oxford English Dictionary, you may want to have a copy of this book on the shelf.

Biographical Dictionaries

New biography reference sources rarely include complete lists of historical names you might need if you’re writing in the past, either fiction or nonfiction. The four biographical dictionaries I have were all found in library sales, and while I don’t use them often, I am still glad to keep room for them on my office shelf.

Webster’s American Biographies (1975) and Webster’s New Biographical Dictionary (1988): These books are my first stop when I can’t find someone any other way. The former has expanded articles on 3,000 notable Americans, and the latter provides the “essential information on more than 30,000 deceased men and women from all parts of the world, all eras, and all fields of endeavor.” Like most reference resources, these books provide a place to start if you have a name and nothing else.

The Dictionary of National Biography Founded in 1882 by George Smith: The Concise Dictionary From the Beginnings to 1921 (London: Oxford University Press,1930): This is a historical treasure, which I rarely use but enjoy browsing on occasion. It can also be a fascinating source of historical names. I find myself perusing this volume when I’m looking for interesting names for new characters in one of my books.

Dictionary of Saints (John J. Delaney. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1980): Billed as “an up-to-date, easy-to-use compendium of factual information” on 5,000 saints, the entries range from basic facts to column-long articles. This is a very handy reference for those who write anything about Church history, especially if you want to research a less famous saint.

 Quotation Dictionaries

We all like to quote famous people, and while there are a plethora of online sources with quotations, this is one instance where you will want to use a print volume that (a) has some authority and (b) provides the actual source of the quotation. Far too many online writers wrongly quote famous individuals!

Familiar Quotations, Thirteenth Edition(John Bartlett. Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1955): Bartlett is probably the best known collector and publisher of quotation books. This particular collection is organized by both person and topic.

 Timelines

These resources can put any person, place, thing, or event in historical context, making them extremely helpful to historical writers.

The New York Public Library Book of Chronologies (1990): Organized by topic from Explorers and Exploration to Sports, this reference gives limited timelines per heading under subheadings. The section on technology is particularly helpful.

The Timetables of History: A Horizontal Linkage of People and Events, 3rd Revised Ed. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1975):  I find this volume more useful for my writing than the above, because this one is organized by year. For each year, significant people, places, and events are given under the headings of History, Politics; Literature, Theater; Religion, Philosophy, Learning; Visual Arts; Music; Science, Technology, and Growth; and Daily Life. So, if you have set your story in 1965, you can look up that year and see what was going on in the world around your story. A revised 2005 edition is available.

 Style Guides

“Can’t live with ’em, can’t live without ’em.” When writing for academia or publishing, you do, of course, need to use the writing style guide required by your discipline or a publisher. While I have years of experience writing in MLA Style (Modern Language Association) and APA Style (American Psychological Association) due to my eclectic academic background, these days I stick with the two style guides used and recommended by Christian Editing Services.

The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago: University of Chicago Press): Used by writers, editors, proofreaders, indexers, copywriters, designers, and publishers world-wide, unless someone specifically requires another writing style, I would recommend sticking with Chicago, which is up to its 17th edition now and is available online in both print and ebook format.

The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style, 4th Edition (Zondervan, 2016): This manual fills in all the holes found in Chicago and other style manuals concerning Christian writing. There are simply terms, ideas, and other nuances used by Christians that need clarification for Christian writers.

 Biblical References

Though I value greatly what BibleGateway.com has to offer, sometimes keyword searching in a humongous database just doesn’t work. Simply searching in the wrong Bible translation may make it impossible for you to find a passage you need.

Cruden’s Complete Concordance to the Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1949, 1966): Alexander Cruden (1701-1770) has been the standard in English language biblical studies for over 250 years. I found my edition, once again, at a college library used book sale, but this one is still in print and can be found in Amazon as well as Christian book stores everywhere.

The King James Study Bible, 2nd Edition (Thomas Nelson, 2013): Whichever translation you use, be sure to acquire a good study Bible. Thomas Nelson puts out a really good one that includes multiple topical indices, references (color maps; monies, weights, and measures; an illustrated Jewish Calendar; etc.), a brief concordance, and footnotes all through.

Whatever you do as a writer, you should never underestimate the usefulness of a print reference book. Looking up facts online might be the quickest way to find needed information, but there’s something to be said for browsing entries in a reference book and the occasional serendipitous encounter with information you didn’t know you needed. As writers, we can never know what we might stumble across along the way.

This completes our series on research. The next time, we’ll look at some New Year’s writing resolutions and how you might go about planning your 2019 at the keyboard.


by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more. 

Please visit our websites: Christian Editing ServicesCreating Christian Books for KidsPray for Ministries around the World, and Find Christian Links

Questions? Email karen@ChristianEditingServices.com

Advertisements
storytelling

RESEARCH IS YOUR FRIEND, PART 9

Here are some handy online sources for quick answers and/or direction for further research.

If you are anything like me, there are times when your brain seems to shut down while you’re writing. I lose the best word, or I draw a blank on how to spell the word I want. And yes, my word processor has spell check and a thesaurus, but one thing I’ve learned over the years is that its vocabulary is not the same as mine, so that option is not always there.

Word Definitions

Online Learn or E-book library . Laptop computer with library books. Innovative education and technology. Vector illustration.As I’ve mentioned before, I usually write my contemporary stories with Google maps open, so I can get the names of real streets in a real city and not have my characters driving the wrong way down a one-way street. I also, however, want instant access to online dictionaries and thesauri, because sometimes that’s the only way I can find a word I want to use. A quick search on any word with the word “definition” will find a plethora of dictionaries with definitions. I won’t name them all here, but suffice it to say that most well-known dictionaries have a free online version. I am particularly fond of the Oxford Living Dictionaries because definitions come with word origins, which can come in really handy, especially when you’re writing historical fiction. (Note: If you can get access to a paid subscription to any of these online dictionaries through a local public or university library, they are far superior in every way to the free versions.)

Statistical Reference

If you’re looking for statistics, U.S. federal government resources are a great place to start. To find U.S. Federal Statistical Agencies, U.S. State Labor Market Information Agencies, International Statistical Organizations, and National Statistical Agencies of Other Countries, simply go to the United States Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics and browse the literally hundreds of available links. Other useful U.S. government sites I regularly use include the Library of Congress, the National Weather Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, and The World Factbook.

Biblical Reference

One of the best resources for the Holy Bible is BibleGateway, where you can find translations in over 60 languages, many of which have multiple translations, including almost 60 different translations in English alone. This database is searchable by keyword, passage, or topic and allows you to quickly move from translation to translation for comparisons.

General Reference

Like the dictionaries mentioned above, most major encyclopedia have online versions now, and several have a free version for the general public (such as Britannica). These are good places to go, if (a) you don’t know enough about a subject to use the right terminology to create an effective search; or (b) you need to find other resources on your topic and want a good bibliography to help you find them.

Finally, I would be remiss in this brief list of resources if I did not mention Wikipedia. Granted, I would never end my research here, because there is sometimes a question of the credibility of the articles found therein—see my ABC’s of Resource Evaluation from October 1—but that doesn’t mean it cannot, like other encyclopedias, be a good place to start.

A perfect example of this happened at the reference desk where I used to work. I had a student looking for information on sporks—those spoon/fork combination utensils.  Well, I looked everywhere in our print reference resources and used every term I could think of to find it in an index somewhere, but finally stumped, I went to Google. Wikipedia came up first, but my student said, “My professor won’t let us use Wikipedia.” I told her I understood why, but then I took her into the Wikipedia article anyway, explaining that she wouldn’t need to cite Wikipedia because I was just looking for a bibliography to see what the article’s author used for sources.

Bingo! The article not only gave us a general history of sporks, starting in the early twentieth century, but also provided the patent numbers and a link to the United States Patent and Trademark Office! So, thanks to Wikipedia, my student had access to primary documentation to use for her speech on sporks, proving that while Wikipedia may not be the best resource to quote, you can, nevertheless, find useful information to take you to resources you will want to quote.

The next time, we’ll look at some print resources I still use regularly.

storytelling · writing tips

Research Is Your Friend, Part 8

Primary vs. Secondary vs. Tertiary Sources

Details - letters written in beautiful boxes on white backgroundAdding details to your fictional scenes can take time to research, but it can be well worth your efforts. Curious about what your characters would pay for lunch at a restaurant in the 1940s? A search online finds a 1943 Harvey House menu listing Roast Long Island Duckling, Special Dressing, Spiced Crab Apple with sides of Candied Yam, Vegetable, Salad, Rolls, and Sherbet for . . . $1.25. (Wow!) Four years later, your characters might board a train in San Francisco at 7:00 Sunday evening headed for Washington, D.C.—but don’t make them in too much of a hurry, because they won’t arrive in Washington until 7:30 a.m. Thursday morning according to the 1947 Through Coast to Coast Pullman Service schedule. And if your character is in orbit, how will she brush her teeth in the morning? NASA’s A Day in the Life Aboard the International Space Station would have that information—and a video to go with it.

Sprinkling your fiction with fact can make your story come alive for the reader, and there is no better place to find the facts than in primary sources. But just what is meant by a “primary” source?

Primary vs. Secondary vs. Tertiary Documents . . . and Accuracy

In my days as a librarian, I helped a lot of students find primary documents for their research, but they are really not as scary as they may sound to the uninitiated, particularly now that we have the Internet. A document is a primary source if it is written and/or published by the person who was there at the time the content was created. For example, I found the menu and price above online off the scanned image of a 1943 Harvey House menu. I also found online the original Pullman timetable from 1947, which would have been the actual timetable used by travelers in 1947. Diaries, journals, menus, timetables, maps; videos of interviews with a veteran, a doctor, or an astronaut—all these would be viewed as primary sources, because your source was there, at that time, doing whatever it is you want your character to do when you want them to do it. The use of primary sources allows you to know exactly what it was like, what happened, as told by a witness to an event or action.

Secondary sources are written by writers who have done research using the primary documents. Secondary sources can be easier to get, they can have the added benefit of additional commentary to help clarify the information, and generally they will be easier to read. A “tertiary” document is a piece written using secondary documents for information sources, rather than digging into the primary sources.

For example, an actual scientific psychological study published in a scholarly journal would be a primary document. It will also be challenging for a layperson to read and understand. But an article from a professional, subject-specific journal, such as Psychology Today, will both make the information comprehensible to the average reader and add a plain-language “translation” of the scientific data. The writer of this secondary article used the primary source—the study presented in the scholarly journal—as the foundation for his article, lending it credibility. For a popular article on the same subject—such as found in a newspaper or general-reader magazine—a writer will usually go to the secondary source, because the “translation” of the data will have already been done, making the writing of the popular article much easier. Less useful to us would be an article or paper for which the writer depended entirely on the tertiary source, and so on.

The problem for us as storytellers is that with each level of separation from the primary source comes more commentary and bias to muddy up the facts, and if we are not familiar with the topic, we could get something wrong simply because we relied on the writer of a tertiary source for our information. (See my October 9th comment on depending on Hollywood for our information.) Will this be a problem for our story? It depends entirely upon our readers’ knowledge base, but since we can’t know who is reading our stories, I think it is important to get our facts as close to the truth—the primary source—as possible, because that “suspension of disbelief” we fiction writers depend upon requires it.

Video Sources—The Ultimate Primary Sources for “Show, Don’t Tell” 

Today’s storytellers are so lucky when it comes to digital resources. Forty years ago, a character in one of our stories might have been present for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, or perhaps she’s standing in the crowd as Hitler admonished his people to go to war, and we would have needed to find a film library with a copy of the film in order to describe it accurately. Today, we can simply go to the Internet and search for videos, so we can hear these speeches for ourselves, see the crowds, witness their reactions to the speeches.

And videos are the ultimate resource for that “show, don’t tell” admonition for our fiction. Say you have an elderly man who wants to connect with his young grandson by building something together. You have only to search the Internet for videos on building a tree house, or a bird house, or maybe a soapbox derby car to learn how it’s done. Watch multiple videos, and write what you see. Add in your own characters and fictional scene details and voila!  The scene will practically write itself!

The next time, we’ll look at types of online resources, when you might want to use them, and how to use them effectively.

storytelling · writing tips

Research Is Your Friend, Part 7

The Details That Help Build a Story: Time-sensitive topics—legal, medical, and technical stuff.

researchThere are some details you simply have to get right when you’re writing fiction in order to keep your readers engaged in your story. That does not mean you need to become a legal scholar, a medical doctor, or a computer geek in order to include such things in your story—you are, after all, writing fiction—but it does mean you need to get the obvious things right, or at least close enough to right so only a licensed attorney, an M.D., or a computer geek will notice where you come up short. (And if you are any of those things, your story will be much easier to write!)

 All three of these general areas are what librarians call “time-sensitive.” That is, if your story requires current information—or information from a specific historic period—then you need to be doubly aware of the publication date of the resource you use. Like those nineteenth-century matches I mentioned in my last post, you need to know via your research whether something in your story is possible during the time period during which your story takes place.

 But it’s more than just “getting it right” when it comes to research and fiction. Doing your research can also enrich your story in significant ways. For example, in my novel, A Chance For Life, there is an embittered woman with an unwanted pregnancy who wants to force my protagonist to adopt her unborn baby. She wants the adoption all signed, sealed, and delivered before the baby comes, so I had to do a little research to be certain this was even possible. It turned out there is no state that allows the birth mother to sign over her baby until after the baby is actually born, and the time varies between state jurisdictions from just after birth to several weeks or even months. So my fictitious New England town was moved to Maryland, where the papers could be signed as soon as the baby was born. I also learned while adoption laws vary, every state requires an official interview with the prospective parent(s). This is where I hit the jackpot, because I found an online resource that not only explained the interview process and cost but also provided the actual questions asked during the interview. Using this list made the writing of this scene the easiest in the entire book!

 Medical information can be a bit trickier, if only because pharmaceutical companies, doctors, hospitals, and other various entities are out to get your money. Yes, there are a ton of medical resources online, from webMD.com to Healthline.com, but you will also find articles by physicians warning against using these sources exclusively, either because they are inaccurate or because they are simply incomplete. In my mind, a writer’s best bet is to “get a second opinion,” either from another general medical website or from a hospital. And if your story is entirely dependent upon a medical issue, think about finding a nearby university library where you can do scholarly research on a given topic—or even find a local doctor or specialist to interview.

 You can often find enough medical information to make your story realistic via a Google search—for example, I was able to find a historical document on the Oregon Trail that gave me information on treating burns back then, which I used in one of my Oregon Trail romances—but do double check any medical information with another source for accuracy.

Technical details, like medical and legal, can trip writers up. Just last week my mom was reading a book set in the early 1800s in which a child was comforted by her Teddy bear. Of course, she might have had a stuffed bear back then, but since Teddy bears were named after Teddy Roosevelt (president from 1901-1909), this early 18th-century child did not have a Teddy bear!

 Communication and transportation are the trickiest when it comes to research and time-sensitivity. I love watching movies in which the characters have to find a pay phone and a nickel—or a dime or a quarter—before they can make a call. Maybe your cop has a pager? Or can she whip out a cell phone? Is it the size of a brick, or is it a tiny flip phone? Do they have to use a key to open the car door, or can they unlock it with a key fob?

 Larry D. Sweazy has recently written a delightful series of books set in the early 1960s about a woman who is a farmer’s wife in North Dakota who also works as a book indexer (See Also Murder: A Marjorie Trumaine Mystery, Seventh Street Books). Here the technology limitations provide a wonderful historical setting for these mysteries, because Marjorie is still using index cards (no computers!), and her telephone interactions with her New York editor are complicated by the fact that though she has a home telephone, she is on a party line! (Those were the days, right?) These technical difficulties prove major impediments to Marjorie, enriching the story’s plot line, but they also add oodles of suspense to the story.

 Just remember to double check the date of your story setting before you have your grandparents meeting their incoming grandchild at the airport—which was a lot easier to do prior to 2001 . . .

Next time we’ll continue by looking at primary documents and other useful resources for enriching your storytelling. 


by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more. 

Please visit our websites: Christian Editing Services and Find Christian Links
Questions? Email karen@ChristianEditingServices.com

Christian ghostwriter · writing tips

Research Is Your Friend, Part 6

The Details That Help Build a Story: Historical Stuff

This is a great time to be a writer of historical fiction because of the mass of historical documents being digitized and put up on the Internet every year. Historical societies, historynational historic sites, associations, colleges and university libraries, museums, and other organizations all seem to be adopting the new technology in order to put their collections online. Some require membership to access, but many of them are free to use by anyone.

One of my personal favorites for American history items is the Library of Congress (www.loc.gov/collections). So much of this rich collection has been digitized, from photographs and documents that go back centuries to audio recordings from as far back as World War I. WARNING: If you are a history buff, you can get lost in these collections and spend hours perusing American History, Performing Arts, War & Military history . . . and so much more.

Another useful tool, the Google Advanced Search (see my October 5 post), can be a big help in locating digitized images of original historical documents. I’ve talked about historical maps before, but there are also early books, diaries, timetables—there doesn’t seem to be any limit to what you can find, if you can build the search to find it.

I once worked as a ghostwriter on a series of Christian romances set on the Oregon Trail between 1836 and 1861. As someone who grew up in Washington State, I knew something about the topic from my school years, but I needed factual details to add realism to my stories. The good news is there are Oregon Trail historic sites all along the 2,200-mile trail, and many of these are digitizing their collections. I was able to find maps of the trail as it developed over the years, railroad maps showing how people traveled from points east to Independence, Missouri, photographs of camps, labeled drawings of  covered wagons, and even the text of a nineteenth century Oregon Trail travel guide, which covered what to take and how to pack it, including how many pounds of bacon, flour, coffee, etc., so when my characters headed west, they had what they needed and nothing more.

Another ghostwriting job I did was about a late nineteenth century mail order bride. My client had a city in Colorado she wanted me to use, and she wanted her character to travel there in a specific year by rail. There was only one problem: The Union Pacific went as far as Denver that year, but the line farther south had not been built  yet. How did I know? My research on historic rail lines not only netted me nineteenth century railroad maps showing where they went by decade, it also found another gem: a railroad timetable for just a year before my client wanted her story set. So I not only knew where the railroad went, but I also knew when and where it stopped, how long it took to get from point A to point B, and how my character could connect to a stagecoach line to make that last leg of her journey.

So you can find a treasure among digitized historical documents to help bolster your story, and though you sometimes just need a simple historical fact, however simple an item sounds, as I’ve said before, you still need to get it right, or you will lose your audience. For example, one of my science fiction novels is about a pilot from a Commonwealth of Planets who crash lands in the Sierra Nevada in 1873. The first half of the book reads like a time travel story, as my character struggles to fit in on primitive Earth. Historical research was necessary to keep the setting realistic. For example, did they have matches in 1873? Yes, they had been invented, but no, they would not have been using them yet in the American West, so as I edited my first draft, I replaced matches with flint and steel.

Language, especially, can be tricky. I don’t know anything that turns me off faster from a historical novel or movie than the characters speaking modern American English. If you have a word that is either slang or has to do with technology, be sure to look it up! For example, a quick plain-language Google search o, “When was the word gadget first used?” finds the word is a late nineteenth century (1884) nautical term from the French word gâche. So my 1873 characters do not use it—at least not until they leave Earth and return to the Commonwealth!

The old adage, “never assume,” is never more true than when dealing with historical information, and as was true with the cultural stuff, don’t depend on Hollywood to teach you what you need to know about an unfamiliar historical period.  For example, though the prairie schooners used on the Oregon Trail were built by the Conestoga Company, they were not “Conestoga wagons,” which were much larger and heavier freight wagons that proved too heavy for the rugged Oregon Trail. And despite what you see in the movies, most pioneers used oxen to pull their wagons, not the more romantic horses or even mules, because (1) oxen could survive on poorer feed; (2) oxen could travel farther in a day than horses; and (3) the natives were less apt to try to steal oxen. So I hitched oxen to all the covered wagons in all four of my Oregon Trail stories!

Next time we’ll continue by looking at online resources for time-sensitive topics: the legal, medical, and technical stuff.


by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more. 
Please visit our websites: Christian Editing Services and Find Christian Links 
storytelling · writing tips

Research Is Your Friend, Part 5

The Details That Help Build a Story: Cultural Stuff

The devil really is in the details when it comes to storytelling. As I’ve mentioned before, if we as writers do not get those pesky details right, then our readers will notice, and we will lose credibility. Perhaps the trickiest area of all is the cultural stuff.

There is a reason creative writing instructors admonish their students to “write what you know.” This is especially true of cultural things, because if we are writing about our own culture, we already know it inside and out, so we won’t make any mistakes. Writing of another culture, however, requires us to really do our research.

Using an Online Advanced Search Option

Businessman pushing virtual search barFinding good information on the Internet can be like that proverbial search for a needle in a haystack, but you can help yourself by using available advanced search options. I’ll use Google Advanced Search for an example, here:

https://www.google.com/advanced_search), though other browsers also have this feature. (You can do a simple search on “advanced search” plus a browser name to find them.)

The Google Advanced Search allows you to do two things very well. First, it allows you to combine search terms effectively by searching on “all these words” or “this exact word or phrase” or “any of these words” or “none of these words.”  In the library we call these “Boolean operators” (named for the nineteenth century English mathematician and logician George Boole), but you are simply using andor, and not to either narrow (and, not) or broaden (or) your search.

Second, the Advanced Search allows you to set limits like language and, the one I find most useful, “terms appearing: in the text of the page,” which will put your terms within the content of the page rather than just in the title or within a series of links to other pages.

When you get good at this, you won’t need to go to the Advance Search screen, because you’ll know how to write an effective “search string” without it. See below for an example.

Case in Point

One good example of doing cultural research online in support of writing fiction is the need to find quality reliable information on the Amish. There are a plethora of Amish stories out there today, because for whatever reason, the Amish fascinate the “English,” and writers—particularly romance writers—are trying to cash in on that popularity. My own experience with writing about the Amish was with a series of Old Order Amish romances I penned as a ghostwriter a few years back. I had no personal experience with these people, and the only guidelines I received from my client were (1) the stories had to be about Old Order Amish people, and (2) they had to take place in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. This is where I used those tools I’ve written about over the past couple of weeks, which I sometimes call the A, B, C’s of Resource Evaluation: Authority, Bias, and Currency are the criteria you should use to evaluate any resource you find. This was particularly important in my research on the Old Order Amish, because there is a lot of misinformation about the Amish online.  I was, however, able to find authoritative official sites from Lancaster County. But I also found—and used—two websites by former Amish who have been shunned by their families and communities.  The latter provided useful insight into the culture, though I had to be careful using these obviously negative resources. Currency was also critical for this topic in as much as I needed to find out how the Old Order Amish use technology today—such as refrigeration, telephones, and transportation—and why.

To find these sites, I entered terms into the Advanced Search Screen and clicked “Advanced Search.” The resulting search string looked like this:

allintext: Amish Lancaster County culture OR history OR lifestyle OR tradition OR marriage OR family OR belief “Old Order”

 My trickiest question came up at the end of one of my stories, and I could not find the answer anywhere on the official sites. In this story, a young widowed mother of three finds herself pregnant with her late husband’s last child. There is a romance, and she falls in love with a very good man who wants to marry her and raise all her children. I had originally written a scene in which the family was sitting around the dinner table talking about the expected child, but I suddenly had a red flag go up in my mind, and I had to ask myself, “Do the Amish talk about expectant motherhood in a mixed group of men, women, and children as we do?”

It turns out the answer is an unequivocal NO! I did a search online for information on the Amish and childbirth and found . . . wait for it . . . a blog by a midwife who regularly served Lancaster County Amish expectant mothers! This midwife had years of experience working with the Amish people, and one of the things she wrote about was this very subject: Apparently, among the Amish, no one talks about the impending birth of a child except mothers with one another. This fact was epitomized by one incident this midwife described in her blog. Once, when she arrived at a house, one of the children looked into her medical bag to find the new baby he thought she was bringing!

So I quickly went back and rewrote that scene in my story. If I hadn’t, the Old Order Amish women who would be reading it in the magazine that would be publishing it would never have accepted it—and my client would not have been very happy with me!

So do your research. Use your A, B, Cs of Resource Evaluation. Double-check every resource for authority, bias, and currency. And whatever you do, don’t depend on Hollywood to teach you what you need to know about any unfamiliar culture. If you have never personally experienced a culture, find a book, a Website, or a blog written by an expert. You’ll be glad you did.

Next week we’ll continue by looking at online historical resources.


by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more. 

Please visit our websites: Christian Editing Services and Find Christian Links 

writing tips

Research Is Your Friend, Part 4

First things first: Thinking Critically about Information (cont.)

As I mentioned last week, the criteria for evaluating resources should be used to evaluateresearch all sources of information, both print and online, but you need to be especially careful with online resources because there are no filters—editors, publishers, reviewers, etc.—between you, the user, and the information you find. There are four main criteria for evaluating information sources: Purpose, Authority, Accuracy, and Currency. Today, we’ll look at AuthorityAccuracy, and Currency.

#2 – Authority

Like any print resource, you need to ask questions. Who are the author(s) and/or sponsor(s) of the web site? Are the credentials (education, occupation, experience, etc.) of the author(s) listed? Do these qualify him or her to write about this subject? And most importantly, can you verify the credentials listed? Remember, anyone can post anything on the Internet. If someone claims to be a professor from a university, go to that university’s website and confirm that they are indeed listed on the faculty—in the discipline they claimed on the resource. Anyone can say they are an M.D. It’s up to you to confirm whether or not they are, so check the hospital in which they claim to work to be certain they are.

Another helpful hint is to check the site’s “about” or “contact” information. Does the site list a phone number, physical address, or e-mail link you can use to verify the legitimacy of the author(s) or sponsoring group? This can be important, because there are organizations out there intentionally trying to mislead people. There used to be a website with the address www.martinlutherking.org. Much of the content on Martin Luther King, Jr., was extremely negative, and it wasn’t until you clicked on the sponsor of the page that you learned it was run by a white supremacist group! How did that happen? They simply bought the domain name before The King Center got online. Thankfully, when you enter the above address now, you are redirected to www.thekingcenter.org, which is the official site of The Estate of Martin Luther King, Jr. I don’t know if it took a lawsuit or a lot of money to get the other URL back, but I was pleased to see it.

#3 Accuracy

This is the most challenging of the evaluation criteria, because to prove accuracy, you either need to  know and trust the author(s)/sponsor(s), or you need to do a lot of extra research to confirm the information is true. To do the latter, you again need to ask some questions. Can you verify the information you find on one site in another resource? Is the coverage objective? If not, is the bias clearly stated? Has the information been peer-reviewed or refereed?

Always remember, just because something is clearly written from a subjective point of view doesn’t mean you cannot use it, but it does mean you need to keep that bias in mind when you do. Even “peer-reviewed” doesn’t necessarily mean unbiased anymore. I see stories all the time about top U.S. universities or scholarly publications censoring research by scholars who do not follow the politically correct position of the day. Everyone has biases—even scholars. It’s up to the user to recognize that fact and use information accordingly.

#4 Currency

This is the easiest criteria to assess, though it also rates an “it depends,” in terms of usability. To find the currency of a web page, look for a copyright date. What is the date on the web page? How frequently is it updated? Is some of the information obviously out of date?

Sometimes, it doesn’t matter. For example, if your story takes place on the Oregon Trail in 1854, you don’t need to worry about when a webpage was last updated. On the other hand, if you’re writing a story about a family facing a hurricane, and you want to know how FEMA responds today, you’ll probably want to find a website that mentions Florence rather than one that only talks about Katrina or Sandy.

One quick warning when looking for really up-to-date information: If a website says it was last updated on the very day you’re looking at it, be wary, and check back again tomorrow. If it is always updated on the day you view it, chances are the webmaster is using an automatic update tool, so it always looks fresh and new.

Next week we’ll start looking at how to find online resources for details that can help build a story by examining special considerations when researching cultural information.


by Laura Ewald, CES Editor and Ghostwriter. Looking for a ghostwriter? Laura may be the perfect fit for you. Email us to learn more.

Please visit our websites: Christian Editing Services and Find Christian Links