When It Comes to Research, Is the Web Enough?

Last Updated on March 23, 2022

Woman Computer Research for BookAndy Weir, the self-published author whose science-fiction novel The Martian became a Golden Globe Award-winning movie starring Matt Damon, did all his research about Mars on the web. “I didn't know anyone in aerospace before the book came out,” Weir told an interviewer from Reddit. “All my research was just good old Google searches.”

Google! Sitting at home in pajamas, noodling around on different sites, following threads from here to there, meandering from Cuties to seedless citrus culture to irrigation advances in California's Central Valley before getting back to what you were meant to be doing: Is the internet today's primary research tool? Can it, as it did for Weir, substitute for direct experience? The answer is—yes and no.

Invaluable as Wikipedia and other web resources are for checking facts such as birth dates, addresses of organizations, correct spellings, years of publication for books and periodicals, names of medical conditions, and many other easy-to-pin-down pieces of information, much of the best writing around still depends on old-fashioned legwork and hands-on investigation. Although Weir managed his portrait of a stranded astronaut without entering Mars' orbit, many authors prefer to bolster their stories with face-to-face interviews and as many first-hand experiences as possible.

Tracy Kidder, whose narrative nonfiction reports are vividly realized, explained his research process when interviewed by BookBrowse about Mountains Beyond Mountains, his recounting of Harvard MD Paul Farmer's mission to diagnose and cure infectious diseases. “I traveled with Farmer to Haiti more times than I can now remember,” Kidder said. “I also went with him twice to Moscow, and to Siberia, to Peru, to Cuba, to Paris, to Chiapas in Mexico, to Montreal and New York City and, many times, to Boston. And I went to Geneva, Switzerland, with one of his closest colleagues. I also visited his mother and some of his siblings, and the places of his childhood. I interviewed dozens of people. And I read a great deal, about medicine and public health, about the places where Farmer works, especially about Haiti.”

Kidder obviously invested a huge amount of time and racked up big bills to do all this work, a luxury afforded by his status as a bestselling author. Both time and money are fundamental considerations for writers without the backing of a publisher, magazine, trust fund, or grant of some sort, so online research is very tempting if only for these reasons: it costs almost nothing and can be done relatively quickly. But the ease and efficiency it affords comes at a cost: the authenticity that results from being “there” (wherever) and seeing for yourself. Nevertheless, as many top-tier writers attest, there are many creative ways of digging down, some not so expensive.

Lauren Hillenbrand, limited physically by health problems, needed to know about World War II B-24 bombers for her bestseller Unbroken, about Olympic runner-turned-Army hero Louis Zamperini's extraordinary experiences in World War II. She studied operating manuals and vintage training films and spoke to as many B-24 pilots as she could. One aviation veteran came to her with a Norden bombsight, set it up in her dining room and taught her how to use it. Another willing aide climbed into a museum's B-24 exhibit and filmed the interior for her. “By the end of my research, I felt like I could almost fly the plane myself,” she told The New Yorker. (It is worth noting that Hillenbrand created her thorough portrait of Zamperini through seven years of phone interviews — not meeting him until after the book was published. It's a tick in the box of technology versus legwork, but at least it wasn't email interviews, which a new generation of journalists relies on.)

Mary Roach, whose subjects include human cadavers (Stiff), the alimentary canal (Gulp), and sex (Bonk), uses the web for preliminary research, to see “what institutes are out there, who are the key players, see what the New York Times has. I do sort of a surface search.” Then, she told Bookslut, comes the more difficult part: homing in on the right setting. “I need to find somebody who's got a project coming up… that's really interesting, that's visual” — someone, she says, who will welcome her into their lab and let her hang around with them, a fly on the wall as she gathers material for the book in progress.

Erik Larson, the highly popular author of many riveting nonfiction books including Isaac's Storm, about a deadly hurricane, and In the Garden of Beasts, about an American family in Hitler's Berlin, is particularly eloquent on the subject of original research. As he explained to an interviewer at BookPage, “…you have to go to the places and get a sense of what's there, even though there may not be much left. I didn't know Chicago before I started writing The Devil in the White City. Suddenly, I'm [there] doing this research for this book, and one of the things that leapt out at me was the power of the lake in defining the city. Not just how the day looks — the light in summer, say — but the shifting moods of the lake at any one time. That became very important to know and to see. I like to think the lake is a character, a quiet character. I think it would be a different book without my having seen the lake. Subtle, intangible things matter.”

Unlike The Martian's Weir, there are fiction writers who do feel the need for reportorial experience. Edna O'Brien told the New York Times that for her most recent novel, The Little Red Chairs, about a Balkan war criminal in hiding, she attended part of Serbian war criminal Radovan Karadzic's trial in the Hague, visited shelters for refugees in London, listened to countless stories, and spent time at a dog shelter where part of one of the character's story is set. (Ah, that sounds expensive again.)

Donna Tartt enriched her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Goldfinch, not just with her imagination but also with information gleaned from the Allen Room of the New York Public Library — just a subway token away. “Basically I can learn almost anything from a library book,” Tartt told an interviewer from GoodReads. “Though I hate team sports and have never in my life willingly watched a football game from start to finish, I taught myself about sports betting from a library book — well enough that I did all right in the football pools at my local bar last fall, and this without ever watching a game.”

The indefatigable nonfiction chronicler Bill Bryson is also a big advocate of book research. His casual history, One Summer: America, 1927, has ten pages of Notes on Sources and Further Reading; I saw only one web URL given in all those pages; everything else pointed to books, magazine profiles, and newspaper articles of the era from which he got his background information and facts.*

Even Larson, a proponent of on-the-ground, immersive experience, relies on printed and archival material. “The way it starts, for me,” he says, also on BookPage, “is you read the broad stuff, the big survey histories and so forth. You kind of circle in, getting closer and closer to the nub of things by going into what I call the intimate histories — the published diaries, documents, letters — and all the while you're looking for the right characters. Then you have an idea of who these characters might be; you come down to a half-dozen characters, one of whom could be central to the story. Then it's time to go to the archives. The Library of Congress is stop one. The manuscript division. It's a bad thing to plan too far and with too much detail about how much you need and where you should go. There's no substitute for parachuting in and flailing.”

Whatever your subject, the key thing is to experience it as best you can: jump in, visit the environment, notice the light, smell the air, explore, read, talk to sources. And regardless of your research approach, stay focused.

“The temptation to get diverted into fascinating byways is enormous,” says Simon Winchester, another deep-digging nonfiction pro (The Professor and the Madman, about the making of the Oxford English Dictionary, Krakatoa: The Day the World Exploded, and The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology). “You've got to keep your eye on the real purpose of writing the book,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle. “In Krakatoa, pepper fascinated me. I wanted to know everything I possibly could about it. You have to sort of slap yourself and say, ‘Now come on! You're writing about a volcano, you're not writing about pepper.'”

*All research for this article was gathered from the web with the exception of this, which was done with Bryson's book in hand.

Copyright (c) 2016 Suzanne Mantell. Please contact the author at smantell@socal.rr.com for permission to reprint.

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