Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Treasure Hunt

By Joe Moore

Over the last two days, my blogmates Clare and Kathryn have discussed researching. Since this is one of my favorite topics and the part of the writing process I thoroughly enjoy, I want to continue the thread.

For treasure-Islandme, researching is a lot like digging for buried treasure. It's the excitement of uncovering those tidbits and morsels of fact that add seasoning and spice to the story. Over the years, I’ve accumulated a list of tricks and techniques I use in doing my research. And I’ve posted the info so anyone can use it. But before I reveal the secret location where I buried Joe’s Treasure Trove, here’s a sampling of what you'll find.

Creating Names
How do you come up with names for your characters, especially the minor and walk-on characters? Pop in a DVD of any movie and skip to the credit roll. There’s hundreds of mix and match names to choose from. And if you need foreign names, just pick a movie that was shot in a particular country. Even the major Hollywood studies use local crews when they're on location and list their names in the credits.

Don't want to watch a movie? There are even fake name generators online, some for specific genres like SF and fantasy.

Character Bios
How about background info on your characters? Easy. Just check the obituaries in a local or national paper. You’re sure to find biographies you can modify for your needs. There’s even a national obituary website where you can find thousands of bios to review. And don’t forget searching the faculty bios at hundreds of colleges and universities for background info.

Location, location, location
What about creating a sense of place? This one is really fun. Let’s say you need to describe a house where your character lives in a particular town. Start with one of the many real estate websites. A quick search will show you what the houses look like in a particular neighborhood or area, many with virtual tours. Google maps gives you the names of the surrounding streets, highways and landmarks. And Google Earth shows you the surrounding territory in detail including the names of hotels, restaurants and other landmarks that can make your story more realistic. And the hotels and restaurants almost always have a website so you can choose what your character had for dinner or what the view is from his hotel room.

I’ve also found that there are many detailed accounts of personal vacations, walking tours and excursions, many with photos, that give great descriptions of cities, towns, parks, monuments, and other unique locations that can add a touch of realism.

As an example of what to look for, a number of scenes in my current WIP take place in the underground Paris Catacombs. What’s it like down in the tunnels? Click here for a personal tour.

Loads of Links
Your hero is in Mexico City reading the morning news. What’s the name of the leading Mexican newspaper? There are websites that list and monitor thousands of newspapers from around the world.

You need statistics? Visit the CIA World Factbook or the Bureau of Justice Statistics websites. Need info on the global terrorists attacks that happed this morning? How about military terms and technology? Or how stuff works? What about access to over 39,000 public record databases? Or finding out what time it is right now in Nigeria or Singapore? There are websites for these and so many more for writer’s research resources.

And the most intriguing treasure of all: The Hidden Web. It’s over 500 times larger than the Internet and hardly anyone knows about it or how to access it. Now you will when you visit my research page.

As promised, here’s the location of my treasure trove, no digging needed. It's my present to all my writer friends. New links are added from time to time, so check back often. Enjoy!

Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Paul Levine, Tim Maleeny, Oline Cogdill, James Scott Bell, and more.


  1. Fabulous stuff here, Joe. Thanks!

    For character names, I have a small collection of rosters from graduations, alumni lists and so on, and mix and match those in a pinch.

    I too scan obituaries for intersting backgrounds. Plus, if I don't see my name there, I have breakfast.

    Re: Settings. Dean Koontz, under a pseudo, wrote an early novel that takes place in Kyoto. He did tons of research via travel guides, restaurant guides, books on Japanese culture, etc., and came out with a very accurate rendition.

    Now, with all the tools available online, what's to stop us? Orson Scott Card wrote a novel recently that takes place in a near future D.C. He did all his chase scenes by using Google maps.

  2. Darn it, Joe! How am I supposed to get any writing done now?

    When I pick character names, I use the Social Security database that gives popular names for each year. I try to avoid the too-common names, though.

  3. I instantly added that link to my faves, Joe--thanks for sharing! When it comes to names, I heard said at Sleuthfest one year that you should never name a character Fred, because then you'd keep having to write, "Fred said."

  4. mean I didn't have to be standing in alleys or crawling in jungles all this time?

    Dang. Well...the web stuff can't give you the smell.

  5. Actually, I do use a lot of web research and have found Google Maps and the CIA Factbook two of my most used links.

    Having long scenes in places like Myanmar,Somalia, Sierra Leone, Bosnia, and Southern England I found such links invaluable. In on case I was able to create an entire running combat scene in Myanmar using actual satellite footage and online photos of the area in the scene. I was shocked so much detail was available, especially for a country closed by a military dictatorship.

    Without the web, I am pretty there is no way I'd be able to write what I write...not without a ton of travel money.

  6. Great list of links Joe. If I could be so bold as to suggest one more...

    Downside - it costs (they've got a very useful free service, but the real meat costs a few bucks a year)

    Upside - It's known as the "Shadow NSA", very detailed, very reliable

    They are actually real spies and analysts, many former CIA/DIA/NSA types. If you want up to the minute info on trends on the world scene, it doesn't come much clearer than Stratfor without a Top Secret Clearance.

    OK...that's three posts in a row...I'll shut up now.

  7. Good additional tips, Jim. The technology available to us today to research makes that portion of the job easier so we can concentrate more on the story.

    Another great tip, Joyce. Thanks.

    Kathryn, I remember hearing that at Sleuthfest, too. Of course, you can always go to present tense. Fred says. Not. :-)

    Basil, they’re working on a virtual Internet scratch and sniff. Just be patient. And a high speed Internet connection sure beats a plane ticket. Thanks for the link. Very cool.

  8. Google Earth and Google Maps are life savers, even for locations I'm already pretty familiar with.

    My WIP is set in a fictionalized version of my home town in Western Pennsylvania, a heavily ethnic area. I pulled out my old high school yearbooks and played mix and match with a lot of the characters' names.

    I hadn't thought of obits for character backgrounds. That's a good one. Thanks.

  9. the internet reallyis a lifesaver for me - and all the online books now available out of copyright area Godsend for the historical researcher!For character names I look up historical names - in books, magazines, newspapers etc. and for setting I've found many fabulous photographs and postcards of places in the 1910s. There's also a vast quantity of information on London including detailed survey and architectural data about houses and streets - I can even get floorplans and details of the interior decorations at the time. Way cool for me....

  10. Thanks for this post. Between this and the plethora of name generators I've discovered, I'll have no excuses for having trouble in naming characters ever again. And, research is becoming a wee bit simpler thanks to reading blog posts like this. Thanks again.

  11. This is very interesting. I am a Dutch writer carrying out research for a new novel. A few chapters are set in China a few decades ago. I have my characters meet each other in a part in the city of Taiyuan. I researched what this city looks like, its parks etc. But then I wondered: did one particular park already excited in 1981 or was it a swamp back then.
    Lot of things to worry about if you haven't been there yourself at the time your story takes place.

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