Besides Using Google, How Can I Do Research for My Book?

Research Tools for Fiction and Non-fiction Writers

The majority of writers know how to use the Internet when they need to investigate a topic. Most of us pop onto a search engine like Google, bing, or Yahoo! Search and type our subject of interest into the search box.

But let’s say you are researching a term like “cancer.” Thousands of sites are going to show up. Some may offer helpful material, but many of the links are going to be useless. You may get scams and offers of miracle cures all mixed in with legitimate websites.

So how do you sort through all the extraneous material to get to the good stuff?

Here’s a simple trick I always use: Type the words “site: edu” after the term you are searching. (Don’t use quotation marks.) Inside your browser it’s going to look like this:

cancer site: edu

Now, the first websites that are going to be listed have been sifted through an educational institution. You are much more likely to find helpful material for your writing.

I write about self-care, so let’s say I have a question in my mind like, “I wonder how listening to music benefits cancer patients?”

Once again I could Google my question, but how will I know if the answers are valid? Maybe someone wrote them on a blog post without verifying the facts. Wouldn’t it be nice to know that the answers have been studied scientifically? Vetted by other scholars? Wouldn’t it be nice to know how the study was done, and whether the research was current?

Even as recent as ten years ago, you had to search tomes or giant stacks of professional journals in an actual library in order to get valid research. But with today’s computer technology it is simple to access serious research for your fiction or non-fiction book.

Hang with me here. It’s not as difficult as it might sound.

My library here in Littleton, Colorado (Jefferson County Library) lets me access professional journals from my home computer. I’m going to show you how Jefferson County’s library system does this. Your library system may vary, so If you need help, ask your librarian for assistance. Also, you need to make sure you have a library card so you can access the system. Here’s what I do:

  1. I go to Jefferson County Library’s web site
  2. I click on the maroon icon labeled, “Research Tools”
  3. I click on “Magazines and Newspapers” (on the left-hand side)

*My library subscribes to something called EBSCOhost, which provides online databases to libraries worldwide. All libraries are different, but most will give you access to two “workhorse, all-purpose” databases: Academic Search Premier and/or ProQuest. These allow you to search specific topics under a broad umbrella rather than having to narrow your research to certain journals (e.g. nursing journals or psychology journals).

Now you’re going to guess at some key words to put into the search box. I start by entering the words:

 affects music cancer patients

This next part is important:

Before I click the search button, I narrow my search by using limiters:

I want to limit my search to scholarly material because I don’t want information to come from non-scholarly magazines such as People or Newsweek, so I check “Scholarly (Peer Reviewed) Journals.”

I only want to look at the articles where I can read the entire article, not just the summary or abstract, so I check “Full Text.”

And lastly, I want the research to be current, so I’ll limit the date to the last ten years.

As I find articles, I look to see which key words are noted so I can try searching those if I’m not finding what I need. When I find my article, I can read it online, print it out in PDF format, or even email it to others or myself. If you are a visual learner, maybe a video showing how I do research will be a helpful addition.

 Do you have some research tips to offer other writers?

41 Replies to “Besides Using Google, How Can I Do Research for My Book?”

  1. Lucille, what an informative, helpful post! The internet is a great resource, but you’re absolutely right that weeding out truth from speculation or opinion becomes dicey. One thing I’ve learned is not to rely on Wikepedia since any reader can edit the content at will. Seriously! I never thought about electronically accessing my local library. Awesome tip, thanks!

  2. Lucille this is great information and you did a great job with the video! What a brave thing! 🙂 Thanks for a great post. It’s going in my keeper file.

    1. Lucille is celebrating her 25th wedding anniversary today in Europe with her husband and asked her Water Cooler mates to check in and let you know!
      Videos do take a little courage, don’t they!

  3. Thanks so much for this information – it will save me many hours of research. I plan to go to my local library today to see if they can implement this method.

    1. Glenda – let us know about your success with the library! All of us at the Water Cooler are always interested in feedback and new ideas. Have a great weekend!

  4. I adore researching my novels. Love the books stacked on all four corners of my desk. Love roaming through the stacks at the library. For my current WIP, set on a modern-day farm in Indiana, I was excited to find books from the 1950’s on farm life. I even found a phone-book-thick book of newspaper columns written by a farm wife from Indiana (I think she gave me up for adoption or we’re somehow related!). While I find that while many of the online sources are easy to find and provide solid information, often the older books provide the added flavor and spice to breathe sections of my novel into technicolor life.

    Another favorite research tip is that sometimes I check out piles and piles of books on a subject from the juvenile section of the library. The descriptions are simple and to-the-point, so I can infuse the information into my story without getting too bogged down with details. An added bonus: the pictures help with descriptions, too!

    I’ve been a research and library rat forever, and have been thrilled to re-apply that love, now, to being a novelist. Hope this helps someone today. Writing mercies to everyone!

    1. Amy, thanks for sharing how you do research. I can just picture you getting lost among the stacks.

  5. Great post – never heard that search tip before and it’ll save me a lot of time! With my journalism roots I always go searching for an expert I can interview and I get a lot of original source material plus a lot of suggested resources to go dig out most. Experts are also passionate about the topic and I leave feeling the same way with a few added details they found interesting but I may not have been able to dig out on my own.

    1. Martha, thanks you for sharing that. I think many of us are intimadated about asking experts. We think we are wasting their time, but you’re right….they are usually passionate and want to talk about their area of expertise.

      Thank you for chiming in to readers while I was gone. You are a blessing!

  6. Great tips Lucille! Hope you are enjoying your trip. Sounds so fun! I also agree with Amy about using the juvenile section of the library. I like to keep it simple to begin with and then intensify my search. I also have some good friends who are libararians and that helps too! 🙂

    1. Jillian, I appreciate that tip. I’m always amazed by the wealth of information all of you have to offer.

  7. Really helpful search tips, Lucille. Thank you! It reminded me of the first time I EVER used a search engine. It was at least 17 years ago. Alta Vista. I was writing a magazine article and planned to do research at the public library that day, but we got snowed it. My then 15-year-old son said, “Why would you need to go to the library when you’ve got the Internet?” Doh! In a quick one-minute lesson, he showed me how to search for material using Alta Vista. Things have changed considerably since then, which is why your up-to-date search strategies are so useful. But oh, how my life was transformed on that long-ago day!

    1. Alta Vista. That sounds familiar but I don’t think I ever used it. Our kiddos sure keep us updated don’t they? If not for them I would never understand Facebook 🙂

  8. Happy Anniversary, Lucille!

    When I’m researching, I trend toward books published by historical society presses (MN Historical Society Press is one of the best) and university presses (University of Oklahoma tops my list.)

  9. Lucille,

    This is unbelievably helpful advice! I thought I was a good researcher but this will take my game to a whole new level. Thanks so much for sharing your experience. Can’t wait to put this into practice. Blessings,


    1. Thanks Glenda. I hope others really can benefit from this information. I’m relying on the fact that other libraries do things in a similar fashion.

  10. Wow. I rarely comment on blog posts but this information was so helpful I felt compelled to say thank you. I have only recently discovered this blog but it’s already one of my favorites because of the great content. Thank you so much.

    1. Judy, thank you. Honestly, the blogs and the authors here are blowing my mind. There is such a wealth of generous information here. Hope you stay.

  11. Excellent post, Lucille. (And I hope you’re having a wonderful time celebrating your anniversary!)
    I also like to talk with the people who are experts in their fields. They often have access to their professional journals–things I don’t have access to. That expands my reach, so to speak. Don’t be afraid to ask someone to help you with your research. People appreciate being considered an expert!

    1. You and Martha both give great advice to talk to the experts. Something I still haven’t done much. Beth, thanks too for taking time to respond to readers while I was gone. You’re a gem.

  12. Just to add to this: .edu sites are from US higher education institutions, but you can also trust sites ending in, which are connected to higher education institutions in the UK

  13. I used to work in a medical library and learned all about databases. They are wonderful sites to get good, research based facts from. But I also just love browsing the public library for books on my subject. I can’t think of everything on say, medieval swords making techniques, and so the best place for me to start is a real book. I can flip through it easier than webpages, in more locations, and usually bibliographies point me to a whole slew of other resources.

    1. Jenny, that’s a good reminder. I almost never browse my library although I do request a lot of books via Interlibrary Loan.

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