What do you Need to Know?
Knowing what it is that youre trying to research seems sort of obvious, but there are times when you wont have the first clue about what youre looking for. These are mostly situations when you already have your story plotted out, and now you need fact to work around your outline.
The situation: A group of police characters is out in the sprawling farmlands of the West Country in the middle of the night. After a brief struggle, one of them is shot. The character that has done the shooting and his accomplice flee. The remaining uninjured character dials 999 from his mobile, but he doesnt get his own dispatch, and the resulting confusion means the ambulance is too delayed in being sent out, and the shot character dies.
There are a few things we need to know for this scene to believably pan out. Firstly, in which sorts of situations would rural British police have guns, and what might cause an emergency call to be routed to the wrong dispatch?
Well look at the gun issue first.
Most search engines only search key words, rather than whole sentences, so it would do no good to ask Google, In which sorts of situations would rural British police have guns? You have to pick out your keywords. This ones fairly straight forward:
British Police Firearms
Plugging those three words into Google gets you some fairly straightforward answers. Basically, what we get from reading the Wikipedia entry is that they wouldnt be issued a gun. If you want your bobby packing heat, hed be doing so illegally. For the purposes of this scenario, some of the officers appear to be corrupt anyway, so having a pistol wouldnt be too far of a stretch. In this case, you could easily imply that the weapon was purchased on the black market or given to him by some other baddie. Either way, the shooter would be untraceable back to him, unless he was stupid enough to leave it lying about somewhere with his dabs all over it.
Now, well work on the second question. But... what is it? First, we need to know what it is that we need to know.
The remaining uninjured character dials 999 from his mobile, but he doesnt get his own dispatch, and the resulting confusion means the ambulance is too delayed in being sent out, and the shot character dies.
Firstly, we can take out the bit about the ambulance. As of right now, we know why its going to be late (although, in queries like this, dont be surprised if your entire scenario changes on you over the course of a half hour). Also, we dont care that the guy dialling 999 is uninjured. That leaves us with dialling 999 from a mobile phone and getting sent to the wrong dispatch.
Lets start with the issue of the phone, and get back to dispatch in a bit. Since hes on a mobile phone, and not a landline, we need to know what the differences might be between outgoing calls from each. Would being a mobile phone make any difference at all? Would placement of towers interfere with the call, assuming he can get reception (since we just want the ambulance to be delayed, and not completely out of the picture, were going to assume that coverage is available where theyre at)?
This is one of those muddy questions that still need to be trimmed down and streamlined. For questions like this, we might do some basic Google footwork first. Some search terms you might want to try would be:
- call routing UK
- 999 from mobile
- 999 from landline
Youll want to compare a 999 call between a mobile phone and a landline to see if there are any differences. Google probably wont give you very much information, but the next step will be easier if youve spent a few minutes in doing this first.
Next, take your query to your preferred group of experts. I like Little_Details because you can ask nigh on anything over there. Tell your experts everything. When the story is taking place (not just what year, but also time of day in some cases), what you need to know, what you think you already know, what research youve already done, and give them a good, solid synopsis of your scene/story. The more information they have, the more quickly youll get help. If they ask you a question, answer it as quickly and clearly as possible.
Eventually, after enough clarification has been made, youll get a really good answer involving overlapping of cell towers, some anecdotal evidence, and how and why such errors in call routing might occur.
So, the research has taken a while, but in this situation (far-fetched as it is), you can make fact bend to your plot, and still have everything feel believable and organic.
Sometimes, though, you may have an issue where you want a situation to work one way, but you cant seem to find any information on how it could work, or even whether its possible.
The situation: 16th century, a character is stabbed through the chest and his lung is punctured. Hes several days journey from the nearest city, but he is travelling with a companion. His companion, though not a surgeon, knows how to patch up such a wound, resulting in them being a few days late into town.
First, what do we need to know? Survivability of chest wounds might be one place to start. Recovery time of chest wounds might be another place. Theres a hidden issue in this question, though; one that doesnt make itself known, except for in context. Youd need to know medical practise for the 16th century. What might have been done during this time, and how would that affect recovery/survivability? So, first, well consult Google, and see what we can manage.
- stab wound
- stab wound to chest
- recovery time stabbing
- 16th century medicine
- 16th century surgical tools
With some of these search terms, youll likely find out how such wounds are treated now, what the expected recovery would be, and that people in Elizabethan England were absolutely nuts. Youll probably already start to suspect that your planned scenario isnt workable, but now would be a great time to double check with your experts.
Again, be thorough and honest in your post and responses, and dont get discouraged when your experts back up your suspicions, bringing in issues of infection from dirty tools, and the dangers of internal bleeding.
At this point, you could do one of two things; either change your plot to fit the information youve found, or change your injury to something less severe so you dont have to mess up your timeline. In the long run, the amount of time taken will probably be the same either way, so the choice is up to you.
What if I cant Find the Information?
Sometimes, you know exactly what you need, but the information just doesnt exist.
The situation: Story is taking place during the 17th century. You want the dialogue to be time-appropriate, with proper grammar for the time and not be faked.
So, what are we looking for? Well, first, you need to know what language they were speaking in the 17th century. I dont mean English or French, either. The English language has changed and evolved over time. The 17th century wasnt too far back, so we can rule out Proto-English and Old English. What youd want to do is look up the history of the English language. If you plug that exact phrase into Google, the first thing you get is a Wikipedia page, aptly titled. In this, we find that theyd have been speaking Early Modern English in this time.
So, now you know what form of English youre looking for, so lets go back to Google.
- Early Modern English
- Early Modern English syntax
- 17th century syntax
- 17th century grammar
- Early Modern English grammar
For some of the terms, you may want to try Google proper, and others, youd want to try Google Books. Did you know that you can read books on Google? Theyve even got books on this subject.
These books might be a bit too technical. Maybe you want to see how people actually wrote in this time period.
- 17th century literature
- 17th century plays
- 17th century pamphlets
- 17th century letters
- 17th century diaries
Sometimes, you want your search to be as broad as possible. If you think it might be related, plug it into your search. You can actually find entire diaries and plays written during the time online. Plays, especially comedies, will be your best bet for historical vernacular, because the dialogue is the most natural (its not exactly perfect, but its close).
If you still cant find the information, you may yet have one final ace up your sleeve. If youve a friend in college or university, offer to cook them supper in exchange for getting into their college databases and libraries for you. Colleges and universities are afforded resources that the general public doesnt always have. These are particularly useful in matters of history or science. Often times, all youll need to do is a library search to get you pushed in the right direction, due to the way a lot of their search engines are arranged.
Remember, resources arent only available online. You can usually find a library close to where you live, and there are staff there whose job it is to help you find what youre looking for. The queries may come back with books, CDs, tapes or DVDs, or any number of sources. The more places you look, the more likely you have of finding the information you need.