How much research you can do online depends on your skill set. Do you know the parameters for research? Do you understand what a primary, secondary and tertiary resource is? Furthermore, do you know how they rank and what that says about the integrity of your writing? There are many reasons that you would disregard historical and scientific records: writing comedy, science fiction and historical romance. Fiction isn’t bound by facts, unless your intent is to be factual. So those writing fictions that require no facts should disregard this call to integrity in research.
Before embarking on research for your next book, if you haven’t gone through an intensive research and writing course (such as graduate school or undergraduate history or science), I recommend that you read a couple books:
- Appleby, Joyce, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob, Telling The Truth About History (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1994).
- Kuhn, Thomas, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
- MacMillan, Margaret, Dangerous Games: Uses and Abuses of History. New York: Modern Library, 2009.
Kuhn’s book is especially good for those who wish to go on to debate political values/beliefs. May I then add, Chris Hedges, When Atheism Becomes Religion? That last book will explain the critical thinking process of viewing our entrenched beliefs and to what purpose we’re headed when we’re irrationally beating others over the head with our thoughts.
Once you’ve prepared for doing research, you can do almost all of the leg work online. By this I mean, you can find resources on line. However, if you’re writing about a specific place, nothing can replace the authenticity in your writing given from having been there. So go, if you can, budgets willing. Photographs, primary resources, can be the next best thing. That’s what makes them so valuable. They’re snippets of time. However, be mindful that photographs have a limited frame, and what you think you see, may be a purposely bias message. How do you know? See if you can find any further information about the photograph. If it’s a well known photo, there will be writing on it.
Google Books and Google Scholar are resources available to anyone, which bring books right into your lap. On Google Books, you can bring up a book and search it for your topic, before purchasing a copy and finding out that it has nothing of use to you inside. Additionally, that one page that does have something you need, you can view there, and save yourself some money. Google Scholar was created for research by students. It allows you to search for resources in the same Google format you’re familiar with, but limits the results to ‘scholarly’ articles. Now, before you start drooling, you have to put on your researcher hat and get to know what is a scholarly article, peer reviewed publication and all of that. Just because someone wrote for History Magazine doesn’t make them a scholar and doesn’t imply that they were reviewed by scholarly peers who can back up the findings or theory presented. Producing work that takes this for granted is fine in certain fiction, but you’ll never gain a reputation as a trustworthy author should you disregard the parameters of good research and present a work that is claimed to be factual.
These two websites can save you a lot of time slogging back and forth to libraries. For most, the nearest college is distant and often closed to them. Town libraries, except in major cities, don’t carry a lot of books that are scholarly level, and if they do, they’re likely out of date. A highschool library will not suffice. So, make use of the sites! Then you can pick and choose the books you buy. You’re really going to want to own the ones that provide the most information, because you will need to refer to them throughout the process of your writing, which can take years, in some cases. Amazon (maybe Barnes and Noble, too) has a great book buy back program, which means you can steal a lot of these for a few dollars.
So to answer the question, How much research can I do online? About half, I’d safely say, depending on your topic. In some cases, all research might be done online. Each project will determine that answer by the need it puts forward.