Vision: A Resource for Writers
Lazette Gifford, Editor
Vision@sff.net

Research and Worldbuilding
for Those Who Hate Libraries

By Betty L. Meshack
2004, Betty L. Meshack


A fiction writer has the luxury of making it all up.  She can create religions, governments, races, histories and myths, geologies, star systems, and technologies directly from her imagination.  And who can check the facts?  The writer made it all up.  Well, readers often check facts internal to the book.  And the writer will be punished with bad reviews or low sales if the internal logic of the story fails to hang together.  Even non-genre writers must, at a minimum, place their characters firmly in the world if the characters are to breathe and live convincingly enough to make the reader care about the writer's idea and theme as they are developed in the work. 

If the writer's worldbuilding is done well, readers will, more often than not, suspend disbelief.  Indeed, if the time, place, and manner of life of the characters are done well, the writer's fiction could even spawn a new religion in the analog world, as happened during the 1960's with Robert Heinlein's publication of Stranger in a Strange Land (Ace Books ISBN 0441790348).  The fiction could become a cherished icon of a political movement as did Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (Little Brown & Co. ISBN 0446310786), Ralph Ellison's The Invisible Man (Vintage ISBN 0679732764), and Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (Bantam Classics ISBN 0553212451).  George Orwell's 1984 (Econo-Clad Books ISBN 0881030368) has even become a shorthand literary reference for politically totalitarian states that use language to control populations.  So rich was Orwell's worldbuilding that a sixty second commercial was able to visually capture its flavor to sell a product virtually without words.  How did these writers develop the information they used to create worlds beyond their own imaginations and knowledge?  They did research as journalists, they were keen observers of life as they lived it, and they went to archives and libraries. 

So where does today's busy fiction writer go for the real world information that can inform her writing and make it live?  In the past, our mythical writer would have spent two or more years getting details right, while traveling from city to city, library to library,  and archive to archive.  She would have spent vast amounts of money and time on research.  Depending on the subject matter, that kind of research may still be necessary.   However, for the person who wishes to write, two years spent researching delays the process.   Fortunately, a tool has been developed over the last twenty years that can help shorten the research and worldbuilding process significantly.  The World Wide Web provides a new means for our writer to rapidly locate and digest vast amounts of information digitally tailored to her interests -- and for free. 

I've spent more than my fair share of hours in the stacks of libraries looking for obscure references while sneezing from allergies.  When the hunt went well, it was not unusual to end up with ten or twenty huge reference books in front of me, index cards marking the passages I needed to copy out for a paper or article.  The task of copying the quotation and citing it according to the dictates of the The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation (17th ed., 2004 Harvard. Law School) often added to the pressure.   The internet has changed all of that for me.  I have purchased several books that I use as references, but to fact check or find obscure references, I now use the Internet for much of my research and worldbuilding.   With the Internet I now am able to locate the basic facts I need within moments of asking a question, incorporate them into my worldbuilding, and move on. 

Today, I conduct much of the research for work as well as fiction writing on-line.   In fact, while I don't really hate libraries, the hours that I could have spent finding the occurrences of solar eclipses for the last 1000 years have been better spent considering how to incorporate the information I retrieved quickly from the Internet into my current work-in-progress.  How did that happen?  I obtained likely dates within a few minutes by conducting a plain-text search for "historical solar eclipses," which led me to several sites listing the dates of occurrences over the last 3000 years.   One of those sites was "Solar Eclipses of Historical Interest" by Fred Espenak, at http://sunearth.gsfc.nasa.gov/eclipse/SEhistory/SEhistory.html.  When I needed to learn about lunar eclipses, I performed a similar search and located  "The Blessings of the Lunar Calendar" by Karima Burns (MH, ND), http://www.islamonline.net/English/Science/2000/4/article6.shtml, which describes the development and significance of the lunar calendar in the Islamic religion.

       

I've learned that just about any subject on which I need information to enrich my worldbuilding may be found on the Internet.  For example, I needed to find likely names for Arab men and women.  Using Google's search engine, I merely input "Arabic Names" and the following website is returned to me:  Sudairy.com, maintained by Christina Sudairy, at http://www.sudairy.com, which lists not only feminine and masculine names but also words and phrases in Arabic as well as recipes.   While it was nice to have the names, I wondered about Arabic naming conventions.   Placing that phrase into a search engine, I was rewarded with the website, "Period Arabic Names and Naming Practices" by Da'ud ibn Auda (David B. Appleton) 2003, http://www.sca.org/heraldry/laurel/names/arabic-naming2.htm.   I did the same kind of search for medieval Moorish names and came up with a site called "Memoriam  Tempestatis", http://memorium.puremagic.com/links.html, a role playing game site which contains numerous links to medieval historical fact sites, which are useful for worldbuilding.   Why was this important to me if I was writing fiction?   Like the RPG members, I wanted the details to be right so that the knowledgeable reader would not be put off by simple errors and I could appear to be brilliant, erudite and culturally sensitive when I published my historical fantasy.       

For my legal thriller and historical fantasy novels I've located several sites that have proved useful for me.  This list is not exhaustive, but includes a variety of sources in a number of contexts.

Need a quick translation of Latin?  Go to Latin Dictionary and Grammar Aid, http://www.nd.edu/~archives/latgramm.htm, a compilation website maintained by the University of Notre Dame.

For comparative religious history and mythology:  The Catholic Encyclopedia (1908-14 on-line ed.), http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/, is an excellent source.  You want to know the offices of the day?  This is your source for the answer.   Interested in the highlights of the papacy of Alexander VI?   Again, you can find the answer here.   Want to know what the gnostics believed and why they are considered heretics?   Go to this site.  (Newest print version is Berard Marthaler, ed. The New Catholic Encyclopedia: Jubilee Volume: The Wojtyla Years. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale Group, 2000, ISBN 0-7876-4787-X.)

I found similar sources regarding the proper forms for daily prayers in Islam (Salaat) as well.  See, e.g., "How to perform Salaat, The Islamic Prayer Ritual" The Canadian Society of Muslims, http://muslim-canada.org/index.html.  Compare "How to Pray the Rosary," The Rosary Center Homepage, http://www.rosary-center.org/howto.htm.

The complete works of Shakespeare may be found at The Bard Of Avon, Shakespeare In Stratford-upon-Avon, http://www.shakespeare-w.com/english/shakespeare/index.html, together with text analysis and translation into modern English.  See also Shakes-Sphere, A Comprehensive Study Guide to the World of William Shakespeare, maintained by Michael J. Cummings, http://sites.micro-link.net/zekscrab/.

Mental Defects and Personality Disorders described according to the dictates of the American Psychiatric Association and DSM-IV may be found at Complete DSM-IV Diagnosis Criteria for Mental Disorders (DSM-IV Made Easy, The Clinician's Guide to Diagnosis) by James Morrison, M.D.  (Guilford Press, ISBN 0898625688) at http://www.geocities.com/morrison94/.   Ever wanted to know the differences between a schizophrenic and a victim of bi-polar disorder?  This is your website.  The author has provided a summary of his $65.00 book on this website.

For a comprehensive site on illnesses, their symptoms, and the medications useful for treatment, go to RxMed:  The Website for Family Physicians and You,  http://www.rxmed.com/.

Ever wondered what the coroner looks for while conducting an autopsy?  Here's your answer at Moyle Information Services for Law Enforcement, by Mike Moyle, a retired detective: http://dmmoyle.com/didig.htm.

Ever wanted the words to All God's Chilluns Got Shoes?  Here's your source:  Negro Spirituals.com, organized by The Spiritual Workshop, http://www.negrospirituals.com/news-song/, which provides the history of and lyrics to many Negro Spirituals and hymns.

I wanted to find out the healing practices of the Fulani.  After making this request I found a scholarly paper on-line, "Ethnoveterinary healing practices of Fulani pastoralists in Cameroon: combining the natural and the supernatural," by Mopoi Nuwanyakpa, Ngeh J. Toyang, Sali Django, Christopher Ndi, and Clare Wirmum, at Indigenous Knowledge and Development Monitor, July 2000, http://www.nuffic.nl/ciran/ikdm/8-2/ngeh.html.

Spanish architecture as well as some history is described along with illustrative color photographs at a travel website, All About Spain, http://www.red2000.com/spain/primer/arch.html.

Looking for information on daily life in ancient Japan?  Try typing in "Ancient Japan" and you get this result:  http://search.netscape.com/ns/search?fromPage=nsBrowserRoll&query=ancient+japan, a list of over 100 likely sources for information. 

What historical facts were taught during the early 20th Century in Colleges and Universities?   You might want to know the answer to this question to determine the knowledge base and historical blind spots of an educated gentleman (or lady) of 1910.  The Great Republic I-IV, by Master Historians, edited by Charles Morris (published early 1900's; Great Republic, ISBN 0671646648), which covers U.S. history from the colonial period through Thomas Jefferson's presidency, can answer this question and is online at:  http://www.publicbookshelf.com/public_html/The_Great_Republic_
By_the_Master_Historians_Vol_II/See also The Public bookshelf, http://www.publicbookshelf.com/, which alleges to be a collection of some of the greatest books ever written; The 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, http://www.1911encyclopedia.org/; and the on-line edition of The Norton Anthology of English Literature I & II (7th ed.), edited by M.H. Abrahms (W.W. Norton & Co. ISBN  0393151107 & 0393947777),

http://www.wwnorton.com/college/english/nael/welcome.htm, which covers historical topics from Middle Ages through the Twentieth Century.   One thing to consider, however:  these historical articles may be biased but are not tainted by political correctness.  As you browse the sections you might be surprised by the style of writing compared with the texts used today.   See also The Visigothic Code, translated by S.P. Scott (Boston Book Co. ISBN 0837712335),  http://libro.uca.edu/vcode/visigoths.htm, which records the legal and juridical codes under which peoples of the Iberian Peninsula lived prior to the invasion of the Saracens, and which formed the historical, political, and religious underpinnings of The Inquisition.

Want to know about women explorers?  Go to the University of Pennsylvania's digital library site, a Celebration of Women Writers, http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/, and you'll find out information about the 19th Century explorer, Mary Sheldon, http://digital.library.upenn.edu/women/eagle/congress/sheldon-may.html

British Royal Navy slang can be found at the website
http://www.royal-navy.mod.uk/static/pages/348.html.

The brave new world of the information highway provides many shortcuts for the on-line writer.   If getting it right is important to you, then this is one tool you should put in your writer's toolbox.  Want to check that the information you retrieve is correct?  Check several sites for comparison.  Of course the warning caveat emptor still applies; although you're not buying anything except information when you click on these websites, you still must be aware and wary of information you retrieve off the Internet -- but that is true with information you retrieve from books as well.  Always consider the source. 

The Internet will not replace the joy of holding real books in libraries or bookstores -- at least not yet.  But when used creatively, it can save much legwork and time, and assist you in refining the research you actually need to conduct in a library.