Unconventional Research Sites for Your Writing

writer researchI read recently that 70% of millennials get their news from Facebook. Really? Isn’t Facebook a place to share personal information, stay in touch with friends and families, post pictures of weddings and birthdays? So why do students turn to it for news? And then, not two days later, I heard Twitter has reclassified their app as a news purveyor rather than a social media device. Once again: Who gets news from Twitter? Apparently a lot of adults. No surprise news shows are littered with references to listener’s tweets and the President breaks stories via his Twitter stream.

One more stat — which may explain the whole social-media-as-news-trend — and then I’ll connect these dots: Only 6% of people trust the press. I guess that’s why they prefer blogs, Twitter, and Facebook.

Research is a similar change. Your grandmother relied on encyclopedias, reference books, and museums. Your mother probably looked to Google. But, if you aren’t motivated by Google’s snazzy list of hits you have to slog through, you won’t get a lot out of it. I have a list of eight research sites that walk the line between stodgy (textbooks) and out-there (Twitter and Facebook), designed by their developers with an eye toward enticing you in and then keeping your interest. Some are more suited to your children than adults — you decide.

It’s notable that most are free, but include advertising. The exception is BrainPOP — there are no ads, but it requires a hefty annual fee:



BrainPOP is a collection of three-five minute animated movies, learning games, quizzes, and interactive activities for kids and teens addressing a wide variety of topics such as math, science, social studies, health, art, and technology. With the assistance of two quirky moderators, colorful graphics, and a clean uncluttered interface, kids are drawn to these easy-to-understand discussions on thousands of topics they’re studying. They can search based on subject matter, video topic, Common Core or state standard, or simply browse a list of videos. Selection can be either a theme-based video or a game (called GameUp) — whichever is better suited to their learning style. Optionally, they can take a quiz and send results to the teacher. It can be purchased as a single license or a district-wide offering. Besides BrainPOP, the franchise offers BrainPOP Jr (for K-2), BrainPop Español, BrainPop Français, and BrainPop ESL.

History Channel Great Speeches


The History Channel includes a large collection of the most famous historic speeches in video and audio, including dropping the atomic bomb, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster, Jackie Robinson on racial taunts, and the 9/11 attacks.

This is a great primary source when researching almost any topic, but especially history.  You hear original phrasing, emphasis, and often reactions to dramatic events that — without recordings — would be simply words on paper to most of them, devoid of passion, emotion, and motivation.

25308581 concept illustrating evolution from books to computersHow Stuff Works


How Stuff Works, available on the web, iPads, and Android, is an award-winning source of unbiased, reliable, easy-to-understand explanations of how the world actually works. This includes topics such as animals, culture, automobiles, politics, money, science, and entertainment. It uses a wide variety of media (photos, diagrams, videos, animations, articles, and podcasts) to explain traditionally-complex concepts such as magnetism, genes, and thermal imaging. It also includes Top Ten lists that address pretty much any topic, such as ten historic words that don’t mean what you’d think and ten things made from recycled wood.

You’ll find thorough discussions on topics you’re researching written in an easy-to-understand manner (that was great when I had to research the magnetosphere for my recent novel). There are also add-on articles that enable you to dig deeper. For those looking for more rigor, there are quizzes that evaluate knowledge and challenge learning (such as the hardest words to spell and Who Said That).

Info Please


Info Please provides authoritative answers to questions using statistics, facts, and historical records culled from a broad overview of research materials including atlases, encyclopedias, dictionaries, almanacs, thesauri, a calculator, the periodic table, a conversion tool, the popular Year-by-Year tracking what happened when, and the oft-quoted This Day in History.

Students 9-13 may prefer the younger-oriented Fact Monster.

NOVA Videos 


NOVA Videos (part of PBS) offer high-quality, well-researched and professionally-presented videos on a wide variety of topics such as ancient civilizations, body and brain, evolution, physics, math, planet earth, space, tech and engineering, and more. It is not filtered for youngsters (though everything is G-rated), rather addresses topics with the intent of explaining them fully. Of great utility is a series of over 400 video shorts (most two-five minutes) on topics such as robots, ancient civilizations, and nature — all searchable by topic and date.

Besides video, topics may include articles, Q&A, slideshows, audio, documentary (or fact-based) TV shows, timelines, quizzes, links to other sites, and DVDs/books available for purchase.

Condom withSchoolsWorld.TV


The UK-based SchoolsWorld.TV is a wonderful multimedia platform of films, games, and information you probably haven’t heard about. It is aimed at everyone involved in education, including students. Topics include math, science, history, geography, music, religious education, and more.

To use this site, filter by age group and then by the type of information you seek — videos, games, or PDF.

Smithsonian Learning Lab


The Smithsonian Learning Lab curates the more than one million digital images, recordings, and text available from the Smithsonian’s nineteen museums, nine major research centers, the National Zoo, and more. The goal is to inspire the discovery and creative use of knowledge.

During searches, you can easily tag and annotate discoveries, save them into your account profile, and then share with others.



Zanran searches not only text (as is done by traditional browsers), but numerical data presented in graphs, tables, and charts and posted as an image. This huge amount of information can be difficult to find using conventional search engines, but not for Zanran (in beta).

If you’re looking for statistics or raw data on a subject, this is an excellent additional site to include in research.

More on research:

My Research at the Library of Congress 

5 Reasons I love Research

Writer’s Tip #26: Be Accurate

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy, and the thriller, To Hunt a Sub. She is also the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer,  a columnist for TeachHUB, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her books at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning. The sequel to To Hunt a Sub, Twenty-four Days, is scheduled for Summer, 2017. Click to follow its progress.


My Research at the Library of Congress 

LIBRARY OF CONGRESSMy current WIP is complicated. It delves into the life of earliest man with all of its threats and dangers, as well as the inventions of those big brain ideas that changed the world (like stone tools and fire). I’ve read everything available on the topic from my local libraries and online. The big resource I hadn’t yet plumbed was the US Library of Congress. It is the largest library in the world, with more than 162 million items on approximately 838 miles of bookshelves. The collections include more than 38 million books and other print materials, 3.6 million recordings, 14 million photographs, 5.5 million maps, and 70 million manuscripts.  It’s had only 13 Librarians of Congress, the current one in that position for almost thirty years. In my case, I sought answers to questions like how did man discover music. How did s/he first organize a system of law? Who was the first person who thought, “I have free time not required to hunt and sleep. I think I’ll draw a picture.”

This is the sort of stuff that keeps me awake at night.

Many of the books are not digitized and none of them can be checked out (by non-Congressional folk) so in my recent trip to visit my daughter in DC, I spent a glorious day researching in this amazing building. You can tour the library as a visitor (which I did on a previous trip) but to use the books requires a library card. They’re easy to get, though you must go to a hidden room down a long hallway in a completely separate building. Once I found the right door, it took only about ten minutes to take my picture, input my data, and print the card.

Before going to the library, I went to the LoC website and ordered the books I wanted with a note informing them of my arrival date. The library staff collected my books and had them ready in the reading room I requested (there are about eight–I think).

When I arrived at 8:30 am, I received a rundown of the rules for using the reading rooms. No purses (though I could fill my pockets with whatever from my purse). No food or drinks, though there was a drinking fountain outside the reading room. The reading rooms aren’t easily accessible. You can see them on the library tour, but to enter them requires a circuitous trip down a yellow hall, up an elevator, and through a guard who makes sure you are approved for entry.

When I finally found the room and checked in with the librarian, he had a rolling shelf full of books awaiting me. Because I wanted to spread them out and compare books over an extended period, they gave me a private area with a long table-like desk with the shelves within reach of my work space.

And there I worked for eight hours. From 8:30 when the library opened to 5 when it closed along with a wonderful collection of cerebral fellow researchers. No one talked. No one varied from their task of consuming knowledge.  The books I’d selected were amazing. None of them were available in my local libraries, some being original work from the early 1800s when we still had tribes living independent of modern society. When I got stuck, a helpful librarian found the right book for me (in one case, it was on the origins of counting) and had it delivered to my room. When I finished, I had to walk through an airport scanner to be sure I didn’t take anything I shouldn’t. When my daughter picked me up in the front of the building, I couldn’t stop grinning with the sheer fun of uncovering the answers.

What have you done lately that blew you away?

More on research:

5 Reasons I love Research

How to Virtually Visit a Location You Can’t Drop In On

How to describe …

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy, and the thriller, To Hunt a Sub. She is also the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer,  a columnist for TeachHUB, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her books at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.

Polystearolmonocylibrium #17

What is this stuff, polystearolmonocylibrium #17? I have no idea. Nothing I’d want to put in my mouth, over my kids, or around my garden. Must be some chemical-mineral concoction brewed up at a secret laboratory in the bowels of Los Alamos. Number 17 yet – sheesh, they made an awful lot of mistakes getting to the one potion they liked well enough to put on the market. Hope they know what they’re doing – hope they know what polystearolmonocylibrium #17 does!

Thing is, I’ve read wanna-be books – books whose authors hope they are on the road to publication – that are as knowledgeable about aspects of incidents in their stories as you are about polystearolmonocylibrium. Which means they’ve written rubbish. Writers can’t write what they don’t know about. Those who do present themselves as false, pretentious, foolish. Readers won’t put up with deception. Rule number one, or someplace near the top of the list: write what you know.

talkingWere I to write only about what I know from personal experience, my work would be a few hundred pages of everyday observations. Best dusting techniques when guests are arriving in half an hour – focus on what shows, skip the back of the shelves. Shortest driving route up the California coast – the inland 5 Freeway which is flat and hot and unbelievably gets flatter and hotter. Discovery that California Highway Patrol does not take reports about minor surface-street accidents – non-freeway fender benders are the jurisdiction of the California Sheriff. I haven’t lived in a war zone, been kidnapped by desperadoes, invented anything of worth, or lived the life of a space pioneer, so my first hand experiences are limited to these kinds of mundane activities. So, how can I write about spectacular events from my ordinary armchair?

Here are snippets about how the experts approach fiction. Barbara Kingsolver researched the mudslide catastrophe of the Mexican village of Angangueo, Mexico, where the monarch butterflies migrate every year. She also studied with a dedicated biology team to combine the real peril of climate change with an imaginative take on biological adaptability to write Flight Behavior. One of the most striking images of her book is that of a forest on fire with the orange flicker of monarchs that have alighted thousands of miles off course in an impoverished community seeking a miracle. Readers cheered for the butterflies to thrive in their new home, for the townspeople to find something of value in themselves, for global warming to reverse.

Charles Frazier modified with great license his knowledge of the life of his uncle, William P. Inman, a Civil War veteran, blending the history of the Appalachians in the mid 1800’s with a story of betrayal and redemption to write the Civil War book, Cold Mountain. Frazier even attended a fiddler’s convention, and his passages about music sound like the work of a master musician. His feel for the people of the mountain, their culture and language, lends the story true breath. Readers ache for the plight of Inman, Ada, and Ruby, and the mad injustices of war.

Geraldine Brooks studied, under the careful supervision of museum attendants, the actual Sarajevo Haggadah to write People of the Book, merging her observations of the actual illuminated 14th century manuscript with her imagination to create a story that sounds completely plausible, reads with much insight about the medieval artists who may have made the book, and the Bosnian museum director who protected it from the Nazis. To follow Brooks’ tale is to enter a world of artists and scholars, of piety and peril. Readers touch the lives of people escaping conflict or creating sanctuary.

From these talented and brilliant writers I learned a great deal, first of all accepting how little I knew. Research has become the pillar of my writing, as it is for these professional, oft published, and highly acclaimed writers. Learning about unfamiliar skills and historical events lends, if not the brilliance of Kingsolver, Frazier, Brooks, at least the shine of verity to my work.

I attended a lecture and demonstration at the Getty Museum to learn about the craft of marquetry, then spent hours at their detailed marquetry exhibit, taking notes on all the steps involved in the process. Later I read several articles and sought examples of this lovely work everywhere, and spent time with a wood carver who demonstrated additional skills. This knowledge of woodworking is essential to one of my novels, The Inlaid Table.

I interviewed a friend who’d lived through a fire that devastated a Southern California neighborhood decades ago. For many hours she shared the day that the fire raged through Lemon Heights, and told me a few details only a first person account could reveal. She’d also saved every newspaper article about the fire and let me borrow them. I read the papers carefully and took notes, corroborated events with maps, working the facts into the fiction of my story, The Tree House Mother.

I’ve read numerous books about Alzheimer’s, attended discussions with people whose families are struggling because a member has the disease, and listened attentively to the lectures of physicians and researchers engaged in the cutting edge discoveries that may lead to a cure. I’ve also sat many hours with people whose lives teeter in the strange vacuum of the disease, and found both dignity and craziness. What I understand of this illness rests at the heart of my book, Where Did Mama Go?

When I began writing each of these books, I knew I would have to find out more than the general knowledge and limited experience I had of specific items or historic eras. What I now know makes my stories read authentically, a frequent comment from readers. That’s what knowing your subject gets for you – a reader who believes.

I did invent one thing: the word Polystearolmonocylibrium. According to Google: “Your search – Polystearolmonocylibrium – did not match any documents.” I could research the Latin roots of the parts of the word, though ultimately it’s nonsense and means nothing. My writing means everything. Yours must as well.


The Writers Circle: Write What You Know

One of our goals here at Today’s Author is to help all of the writers among us to do what we love to do: write. One of the best ways to accomplish this is by talking to each other and learning from each other.  Our Writers Circle series is designed to do just that – provide a chance for us to discuss writing, editing and publishing questions.

This week’s topic is:

One of the most common things we hear as writers is that we need to “write what we know”.  So today we’d like to discuss how and where you learn about subjects that perhaps you have little direct, personal experience with.  What tools and resources do you use and how has this changed for you over the years you have been writing?

Discuss this topic here in the comments or head on over to the forums to start or engage in a more thorough discussion.

A Cryptic Tale

origamicraneCan a writer present history that is more exciting than a textbook but still discharges the essence of truth if he strays from absolute fact by embellishing a real moment with creative interpretation?

Jim Fergus based his novel, One Thousand White Women, the Journals of May Dodd, on one small incident in American history. In 1854 Cheyenne Chief Little Wolf traveled to Washington and proposed to President Ulysses Grant that the two cultures make a trade. The Indians, whose people were dying out, would give one thousand horses in exchange for one thousand white women. The women would procreate with Indian men, and the resulting children would be a bridge between cultures, ensuring a future for Indians within the sustaining white community. Never happened, of course, or you’d know a gazillion women claiming to be heroic descendents of this social experiment and likely demanding reparations loudly, or hiding the humiliating fact of their heritage and likely demanding reparations secretly, depending on whether they found the act courageous or shameful.

Fergus used this failed attempt at genetic meddling as the kernel for his book, but he changes the original suggestion to take place in 1874. The U.S. government accepts Little Wolf’s offer and rounds up women on the fringes of American society (no debutantes these future Indian wives): those in insane asylums, prisons, or the social bondage of being too homely to marry. From an insane asylum comes May Dodd, a young and progressive woman who has already exhibited unconventional characteristics by living out of wedlock with a man below her social standing and bears him two children. Her own family determines the obvious conclusion: she is mad, and they confine her to a mental institution where she is treated brutally. May volunteers to go West and become a Bride for Indians, as it’s the only way she can be released from the asylum.

The strange journey of her life with the Indians reflects a great deal of the actual history of the broken treaties between the US government and the Indian tribes they are trying to confine to reservations. May Dodd witnesses horrible acts on the part of American soldiers as well as Cheyenne warriors. She finds the “savage” lifestyle of the Indians more appealing than that of the White America that betrayed her. In the end, May learns that betrayal and savagery is the territory of all men, and skin color and culture have little hand in making anyone a noble being. Is Fergus’ book a twist of history? Of course, but in his hands he reveals both Indian and American societies, showing that they are closer in kind than either would admit. There is much truth in the betrayal of the Indians at the business end of government rifles and broken treaties, and in the narration of repugnant tribal savagery. May Dodd is the vehicle through which this mortifying period of history comes alive in ways that history books don’t achieve.

The historian Josephus, a first century Jewish scholar who lived in Roman controlled Judea, wrote the only known account of the siege of Masada. Masada was a fortress built on a desert mountaintop south of Jerusalem which in 70 C.E. held out against 10,000 well armed and provisioned Roman troops. More than 900 Jewish men, women, and children determined that they would not concede to Roman condemnation of their faith or control of their destiny, and chose instead a mass suicide pact, thus deflating Rome’s power. Josephus’ history discloses that two women and five children survived the massacre though no details exist. Museums in Israel and Wales maintain in their collections several artifacts from the siege: a scrap of plaid fabric, a woman’s sandals, an amulet, remnants of silver armor, incantation bowls.

From these few remains Alice Hoffman constructed The Dovekeepers, a story of four women whose resilience and extraordinary skills bear witness to the cruelty of the Romans and the ingenuity of the Jewish rebels who refuse to be conquered. Yael is the daughter of the master assassin who leads the Jewish band. Revka fiercely hides and protects her grandsons after the murder of their mother at the hands of Roman soldiers. Shirah uses her skill with magic and folk medicine to aid those in precarious health, especially women. Aziza secrets herself in the guise of a male and bests the young Jewish warriors at skills they cannot imagine a girl could learn. These women maintain the dovecote, an essential asset in keeping the Jewish community from starving. Hoffman admits that there is controversy over whether or not doves were actually kept at Masada, but in her book they represent a critical resource and the future.

History may be intricately folded like origami or cut like lace in attempts to tell only the most significant parts of an event and leave out the mundane details. Thus textbooks explain complex troop movements, the rank of leaders, and political intrigue but miss telling about the impact of war on the children and wives left behind, of the ordinary farmers, weavers, and sailors still trying to bring in their crops, sew coats, or transport goods. Common folk have little place in the annals of world history and are given short shrift, if any shrift at all, in history books. In the hands of deft wordsmiths, the truths of these ordinary lives come to light in rich and unexpected ways, exposing the full breadth of history, filling in the spaces between what historians find important and what people want to know.


Robert Morgan writes at the end of his novel Gap Creek:

I tell my students that you do not write living fiction by attempting to transcribe actual events onto the page. You create a sense of real characters and a real story by putting down one vivid detail, one exact phrase, at a time. The fiction is imagined, but if it is done well, it seems absolutely true, as real as the world around us.


I offer only scant apology to the reworking of history in my own stories. I am a storyteller who loves history and researching real incidents, real people. But if a detail would better tell my story with a bit of imaginative revision, then hand me the scissors and glue. You can always go read a history book about the same events. It is not meant for one genre to usurp the other but for each to complement the other, a kind of silk word embroidery on homespun.

Be well, friends.

5 Reasons I Love Research

researchOne part of writing that goes out the window during NaNoWriMo month is research. You better have that done before starting the mad dash to 50,000 words in a month.

That, I suppose is another reason (on top of the 23 I mentioned last month) why I am not doing this particular contest: research. When I write, I have no control over when I will need to research and when I’ll write-write-write. And if I need to search for detail, there’s no telling how long it’ll take. I’ve been known to spend a week–ten days–uncovering the information my story requires. I don’t know what it is until I find it. It’s like a Rubik’s cube–pieces pop into place when I have the right stuff.

Truth, I love research. I get lost in it. I read and read and read until I get a sense of the world that is that character, setting, time frame–whatever it is. I know when I’m done, but more importantly–I know when I’m not done. I just keep digging. And I love it. Why? Research:

  • answers questions. I’m chatting with friends about global warming. We-all wonder–how much hotter is it today than it used to be. I jump on Google and find out–the Global surface temperature increased 0.74 degrees in the last hundred years. I read a bit further and find out it’s cooler today than two million years ago. We’re in an ice age. That’s confusing. I either keep reading or put it on my ‘todo’ list for later.
  • gives me ‘insider knowledge’ about whatever I choose. When I’m visiting the everglades, it’s good to know crocodiles have been around over 200 million years. That means they aren’t likely to become extinct before my trip is over. I think about it and decide they do fit their environment pretty well, even if that ‘environment’ is disappearing.
  • Puts me in the driver’s seat–I know stuff no one else does. Everyone has a friend whose debate technique is only one fact deep. When I throw facts at them, they don’t know what to do. (They either insult my lineage or make excuses.)
  • ignites my imagination. I’m out there, exploring a world that fascinates me, not knowing what I’ll find, and suddenly one detail pushes my creativity one way or another. Something I’ve uncovered about a street or an artifact turns the story in a direction I didn’t expect and the plot begins to rewrite itself. I love that! Well–I do love it if it’s early enough in the process. If it’s the eleventh hour, not so much–though I still go with it. You must, right?
  • excites me. I love the high I get from learning new stuff, solving problems I didn’t think I could. It’s like nothing else in the world.

Here’s what I was researching three years ago and last year. Here’s what I’m researching for my new book (which is non-fiction):

  • the Maker Movement–do it yourself is back, big time. People all over the country are doing stuff themselves and exulting in the effort.
  • MOOCs–Massive Open Online Courses–all the rage in education right now. They’re mostly free, provide lots of information, and are a great way to erase the digital divide–if we can get the information out there.
  • Genius Hour–allowing workers/students 20% of the workweek/schoolday to do whatever creative endeavor they’d like. Google began it and education’s picking it up. I’m very excited about it.

How about you? What’s snagged your cerebral attention?

Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy. She is webmaster for six blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer, a columnist for Examiner.com and TeachHUB, Editorial Review Board member for Journal for Computing TeachersCisco guest blog, and a monthly contributor to Today’s Author. In her free time, she is  editor of a K-8 technology curriculum and technology training books for how to integrate technology in education. Currently, she’s editing a thriller that should be out to publishers next summer. Contact Jacqui at her writing office or her tech lab, Ask a Tech Teacher.

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