Writers, even fiction writers, are required to do research on a regular basis and the internet has been a huge blessing for writers in terms of being able to conduct research without having to spend large amounts of money on travel and in some cases reading materials. Even the library has become more accessible because of the internet.
However, you must be careful with regards to which websites you rely on for your research and pay close attention to the purpose of the website you are visiting. For example, a website for a city or local municipality primarily exists to convey information to its residence and those who might want to do business with the city or municipality, whereas a Chamber of Commerce site for the same locale has a primary focus of convincing potential customers to patronize the businesses of the locale. Both can provide invaluable information for a writer when researching locations for the purpose of describing a setting for a novel but again these sites provide different perspectives of the location.
It’s also important to understand how the locale for your potential setting fits within a regional context because this impacts on cultural and physical descriptions that may be important to not only the story you are writing but also your credibility with your readers.
In addition to a city or chamber of commerce website there exist a large number of other government agency websites at the state and federal level that can provide invaluable information and perspective for the writer. Additionally, educational and local civic group websites can yield a wealth of information as will museums and historical societies, which thanks to the internet are now more accessible.
One area of research that can be particularly daunting is the geographic aspect of a novel’s setting. As writers we want our readers to be able to feel as if they are physically in the setting we are describing. Historical settings can be challenging when you consider that the names of countries have changed, roads have been created or even rerouted, fields have turned into housing developments and ethnic profiles have changed not only from century to century but even decade to decade.
Several sites can help with the geographic research for a novel set in the US and they include:
The CIA World Fact Book
The US Geological Survey
The US Census Bureau
Geographical Information Systems (GIS) are not only a useful tool for scientists but can provide writers with a collection of information that provide a more complete picture of an area, but its history, weather, and even future issues related to how the people in an area live and use the land. An interesting article published by the New York Times in July 2011 shows just how useful a GIS can be with respect to historical geography:
Years ago I remember books being described by reviewers as having the feel of arm-chair traveling when recommending a good read to their audience. I still believe that readers of fiction continue to want that experience of arm-chair traveling and escaping to worlds that are new and different. With many of the tools and resources now available online, writers can provide that experience without necessarily leaving their own arm chairs.