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A Peek Behind the Scenes

June 22, 2015

I’m not one of those writers who’s comfortable dropping “insert historical person’s actual name here” or “which street are they on exactly” or “is this the right word?” into a first draft. I’m also not comfortable laying out scenes and plotting stories without having a bit of blocking and geography backing me up. I have to know things in the moment, most of the time. I blame my general nerdiness and the fact that I’m a pantser in equal measure.

I’ve been noticing my go-to sites more the last couple weeks. Not sure why. Just am. And I thought I’d share my favourite and most useful sites today, as a way of both sharing my writing process and possibly helping other writers (like you?) find things that might be useful to them as well.

  1. Wikipedia – Yes, I know. I know. It’s simplistic and inaccurate and lazy. I tend to write in libraries and I have an internet connection. Surely I can come with an actual encyclopedia or other fact-checked reference work! And yes, I could, but that means getting up, leaving my train of thought, hunting for who knows how long…. For the stuff that matters, that I need to know in decent depth to be accurate and honest and unbiased and all that, I’ll double-check with better resources later, but sometimes a girl just needs to spell a name or verify dates or get an overview or make sure she’s remembering something right. Wikipedia’s good at that, and also good at grouping related topics handily.
  2. Wiktionary – See: Wikipedia. I use Wiktionary to double-check definitions quickly, to make sure I’m using the word in the right sense, to find the occasional synonym or related word.
  3. Etymonline – Good for finding historically related terms and archaic words. I also use this site to check dates. Would this word make sense for a Victorian to say? Did the noun or the verb come first for this?
  4. Write Like Austen – My current project includes a proper Regency lady. I’m doing my very best to get her speech right for the period. When I run into a word I’m not sure of, usually one that sounds particularly American or Twentieth-Century, I go here. It gives me word options too, which is fantastic when I do want to use a word that’s from the 1950s—even if the thesaurus could use a little work.
  5. Ngrams – I use this in partnership with Write Like Austen, because sometimes the words are the right period, but the phrase is not. I can also check multiple wordings against each other, or word placement (is actually going vs. actually is going, for instance), and I can select dates and corpuses too. Again, I know it’s not a perfect resource, but it gets me at least in the realm of believability.
  6. The Dictionary of Chinook Jargon – The best quick resource for Chinook words I’ve found. There are better books in the library, but that means having to find them every writing session. I plan to check usage and grammar against those better books in draft two.
  7. Project Gutenberg – Public domain books free for the browsing. You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff I’ve found!
  8. The Atlas of Canada – Did you know there was a free, zoomable, complete topographical map of Canada online? Neither did I! I’ve estimated walking distances and mountain height off this one.
  9. Google Maps – How long does it take to drive from A to B? What’s the route? What buildings are they passing? What sort of terrane? Streetview is awesome.
  10. Google Earth – For when I need to mark multiple locations over large geographic distances and get a sense of their relation to each other.
  11. SimpleMind – Referred to me recently. This is a mind-web app. It lets me map out ideas as they relate to each other, spin out connections, and color-code everything. The organization geek in me is very happy and may need to buy the full version.

That’s it for the resources, for the most part. Google itself is also helpful, but I think in this day and age, that’s a given. I’d like to share a couple books before I go, though, because they gave me a better sense of (European) history and deserve a lot of credit for how I think about history these days.

  • Guns, Germs, and Steel – An overview of how cultures and nations rise and fall, covering all of history, the whole of the globe, and everything from hunter-gatherers to industrialized states.
  • Vanished Kingdoms – Each chapter tells the story of a different European country that’s lost to time, from the end of the Roman Empire to the present day. I had much a better sense of European history by the time I’d finished, plus a better sense of the cultures and geography relating to the countries and of how history is interconnected. I still feel really bad for Poland.
  • The Hammer and the Cross – A history of Vikings from the first mentions to the end of the Viking Age, from Scandinavia to Constantinople, the Strait of Gibraltar, Ireland, and Newfoundland. A different perspective on medieval Europe, and a fascinating look at a past culture.
  • The History of Ancient Egypt Another history of a culture, this time the Egyptians. Interesting because it’s based solely on archaeology, thus showing the common people along with the pharaohs and going into how things were made and the flow of knowledge. It also strips colonial terms like “king” and “trade” and “war” from the narrative, forcing the reader to think more like the Egyptians likely did.
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