How Do You Know That Stuff? Using Google for Research

To people asking me, “How do you know that stuff?” I say using Google for research. How is that possible? Here are a few of my secrets. Most authors say that research is one of its joys. Also, one of its traps.

Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Intriguing Plot Details

Use Google for Story Research to find intriguing details
Find intriguing details

Intriguing plot details are the content that persuade readers you know a lot of about history. Few care about the correct characters and factually accurate events. Most are more titillated by such plot twist details as murdering people with apricot kernels or treating pain with natural painkillers (willow bark, hemlock [a few drops only!]). So to persuade people you know stuff, look up such things using Google. For example, names of common herbs to prepare tisanes for sleep are easy to find. I did. They include lavender, chamomile, magnolia bark, valerian root, and blue skullcap.

Creating Characters

Creating interesting characters is an essential element of a great story. In the Renaissance an example would be a witch. Here is what I might do. Creating witch characters does not require a vast knowledge of arcane lore. If you stay away from Macbeth-type stereotypes of a wart-covered old lady stirring a caldron on a barren, wind-swept moor, you are on the right track.

History tells us that the typical witch was a poor woman living alone. Often quite odd, possibly disliked by her neighbors, she worked perhaps as a healer or midwife. This will rarely make an interesting witch character. Why? She will be too close to a stereotype. ‘Heretics’ — i.e., members of proscribed sects such as Cathars or Waldensians — were often persecuted as witches. An individual from this group may make an interesting witch character. But doing so will probably affect your plot, so make it a conscious choice.

Google for Topic Searches

If you do not know stuff, you can use Google for research
Malleus Maleficarum

Rather, I suggest a fresh approach. Try googling your topic, for example ‘Witches in [name of country]’ and see what you get. When I searched Witches in France, I found Witches and Witch trials in France. As I scrolled through the extensive list, I discovered many men, including priests, deans, and even bishops, faced witch trials. These could all make excellent characters.

Here is one entry:

“A group of clerics tried for attempt (with image magic and magical objects) on life of Benedict XIII and members of Curia.”

Sources: Pierre Luc, ‘Un complot contre le Pape Benoit XIII (1406-07)’, Milanges d’archeologie et d’histoire de l’???cok Francaise de Rome, LV (1938), 374-402; Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages (‘97).

This will make a great plot and set of characters (and I am already writing it!). There are many more enticing characters and plot seeds. I will leave them for other authors to uncover.

Creating Character Individuality

Characters need individuality. So, I offer one last seed to create your character. Castles and Monasteries have gardens. So, planting them with the makings of potions will be fun. To use google for story research, start with search terms like ‘poisonous herbs’. From this you can plan a witch’s herb garden. It can contain Hemlock, foxgloves, oleander, lily of the valley, even rhubarb. Just make sure the plants grow in the country of your story. Creating a still room even more authentic. There is a simple description and delightful image of one here.

By GFreihalter – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Authentic Historical Knowledge

There is no substitute for actually knowing stuff. To write about them, you need to know how monasteries and chateaus function. You must know they contain still rooms and what purpose they serve. If not, you will not know to look up the terms or be able to create scenes that resonate, even with authentic details. But Google can help. You need not keep every detail in your head. You can find words and expressions current at in your time period. So use it. It is a great tool.

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