How Helpful is the Internet in Researching Your Book?

World Wide Web prefix
At a table during a weekend for writers to showcase their books, I sat next to a woman who wrote romance novels.

“How do you research for your novels?” I asked.

“Research? I don’t do research. That’s why I write novels.”

Whether fiction or nonfiction, if your book is set in New York City, Wyoming, The Texas Panhandle, or Miami (Miami is in Florida, isn’t it? Or is that Miami, Missouri?) you need to research. If your book takes place on a steamship you will need to research differently than if it takes place in the desert.

Some of your research can be on the Internet, the all-things-to-all-people, global interconnection of computer networks that includes email and the World Wide Web (WWW or Web). The Web is an easy resource to use. Just type a few key words into your browser’s search field from an Internet-connected computer anywhere in the world and more information than you can use pops up. Be on your guard, though, since anyone can put anything onto the Web. Consider starting your research on the Web and then verifying by going to original sources including other sites and books at the library. Careful does it when you find the exact wording on your research topic among several Web sites, a sure sign someone has copied the material; you won’t know how many degrees of separation.

S. J. Stewart is the author of eight western novels with a ninth to be released next month. Her books include Gambler’s Instinct  and Outlaw Stronghold. She uses a traditional setting for her books, which her publisher describes as locations west of the Mississippi River in the period between 1860 and 1890. Besides using the Internet for research, she keeps a map handy and has a large collection of reference books.

“My books include Southwestern history, Civil War history, plant life, animal life, the diaries of real persons who lived during historical times, a dictionary of the American West, and an encyclopedia of the American West. I also have a large illustrated book about saloons, one on shady ladies, an illustrated book that is an authority on the clothes worn by different types at different time periods, and a book on cowboy slang. You can’t learn too much.”

Linda Austin was born and raised in the United States; her mother, Yaeko Sugama-Weldon, is a native of Japan. Linda wrote the memoir, Cherry Blossoms in Twilight, with and about her mother who lived through a WWII bombing of her village. The memoir reveals the horrors of war through the eyes of a civilian and celebrates Japanese family life. Linda’s research beyond interviewing her mother makes Yaeko’s stories more realistic and powerful on the page.

“I had to research WWII history and what was going on in Japan during the War. I read books and searched online. If I could not verify something I either left it out or stated it as an opinion or personal belief. I had a Japanese gentleman and his wife who are close in age to my mother review the book for details of the Japanese culture of that time.”

Amanda J. Barke is a prolific article writer and author of A Distant Rumble and The Sleepy Little Sun. She says to double check online resources as the Internet can be unreliable. She goes to the original source.

"If I am researching bankruptcy law, I am not going to take the opinion of a consumer and use it as a source for my article. I will go directly to an official website for bankruptcy law." She also uses multiple search engines to widen her results and says subsequent pages of search results can yield important information not on the first page.

Researching online can be time consuming, but eventually has to end, she says.

"At some point you must begin writing."

A library tutorial at the University of California Berkeley declares, “there is a lot of great material on the Web—primary sources, specialized directories and databases, statistical information, educational sites on many levels, policy, opinion of all kinds, and so much more—and tools for finding it are steadily improving.” However, the tutorial recommends searching the Web with “peripheral vision.”

Cornell University Library lists accuracy, authority, objectivity, currency, and coverage as criteria for evaluating information on the Web and walks you through the who, what, where, when, why, and how of those criteria.

Wendy Boswell of has a basic checklist. recommends the CARS checklist: Credibility, Accuracy, Reasonableness, and Support.

How did I find the information for this post? I’m blessed that S. J. Stewart, Linda Austin, and Amanda Barke are my writing friends and I asked them. The rest is a combination of the writer in me and searching the Web.

How has researching on the Web been useful to you? What frustrates you about researching on the Web?

Photo courtesy Creative Commons.


  1. I suppose the only time you wouldn't have to do research is if you are writing fiction set during current times, in an area you are already familiar with and the place names are all fiction. But imagine how much richer the novel would be if it were set in a real place.

    One bit of advice in creating fictional towns: make sure there isn't actually a real town by that name in that area. I read a book supposedly set in a fictional Midwest town, except there was a real town by that name in that state - my hometown! The author had no idea until she started hearing from people living there.

  2. I tend to agree with moonbridgebooks about writing fiction set during current times. However, I think if you are a non-fiction writer you are under tremendous pressure to get the facts straight. If a reader picks something out of your work that isn't factually accurate, you lose credibility. I believe it is critical for a non-fiction writer to do their research. There are many options on the internet, just as in the library. It's good to explore them all but be able to confirm what you learn.