When I was an investigative journalist back in the pre-Internet days, doing background research was an incredibly time-intensive ordeal. Obtaining court documents meant hours sitting in front of a microfiche machine looking up case numbers then asking the clerk to find the file for you. Simply looking up a newspaper article meant doing much the same thing in the public library.
Thank God for the Internet.
Yet many people today still believe the Internet is untrustworthy source of information. True, there is a lot of junk information on the Net, but there is a lot of good information, too. You just need to know how to look for it.
For example, while writing my sci-fi novella Eden, which deals with American soldiers discovering an ancient Sumerian temple and the secrets hidden within, I wanted to include actual Sumerian language in the narrative. Searching the internet, I found two Sumerian to English dictionaries that allowed me to salt my story with the ancient language.
My current work in progress (WIP) culminates with a supertanker destroyed by a massive explosion. From my U.S. Coast Guard service, I knew such events occur; I've actually witnessed the aftermath of a deadly tanker explosion. However, for my book, I needed a realistic means of creating a blast that fit the plot.
Scanning the Internet, I was able to read the official findings of investigations into tanker explosions. I also discovered a merchant marine education site that had electronic versions of shipboard safety manuals. Between those two sources, I was able identify the realistic for making my supertanker explode that fit with my plot.
Not long ago, a friend sent me an advance reading copy of his latest novel. In one scene, he had members of a SWAT team using axes to enter a secret tunnel. I was trained as a SWAT medic when I served as a sheriff's reservist, so I knew a breaching charge would be more effective for opening the tunnel. After five minutes on the Internet, I discover a SWAT team handbook on breaching charges, identified an appropriate charge, and sent that information to my friend. He subsequently rewrote the scene with data I provided.
Where did I go to find such information? The best place to start is the old, reliable and ubiquitous Google. Google maintains a massive index of online information, and its search engine is powerful. The secret is how you use it.
Depending on the subject matter, you might start with a general search. For instance, assume you are researching spy craft used in WWII by American OSS operatives. If you simply search for "spy craft," you'll receive in 444,000 citations—which makes finding the information you need equivalent to looking for that needle in the haystack.
On the other hand, narrowing your search to "spy craft OSS WWII" reduces those results to a more manageable 15,000 citations. Adding the word "handbook" to the search reduced that to just over 6,000 citations and led me to a reproduction of an actual WWII-era book used to train Allied spies.
Scholarly articles can also be a valuable source of background research for writers. One of the best sources for such research, assuming you do not have access to a research library as I do in my day job as a Navy research analyst, is Google Scholar.
Using the same search as above, the search term "spy craft" returns 1,100 citations. Using the extended search term "spy craft OSS WWII" narrows that to 144 academic citations. In some cases, the full article will be available through Google Scholar; in others, only the citation is available which you can use to look the article up.
One online resource many writers don't think of is YouTube. As I mentioned earlier, my current WIP ends aboard a supertanker. Having served in both the Coast Guard and Naval Reserve, I've been aboard several ships, but never a supertanker. Fortunately, many merchant sailors like to video their voyages and post the videos on YouTube. I was able to find dozens of such videos that were the equivalent of a walking tour of a supertanker, from the main deck to the bridge, to the cargo tanks, to the crew cabins, to the engineering spaces. I discovered these ships are so huge, they even have swimming pools for the crew!
Setting a scene is important for pulling readers into your story. If you're writing science fiction or fantasy, you can rely entirely on your imagination. However, if your scene takes place in a real life location some distance away, you may need to do some on scene research. But what if you don't have the funds to travel?
I use Google Maps.
Google Maps has the ability to take you right down to a street level view of most places on earth. For instance, in preparing this article, I used Google Maps to view Uppsala, Sweden, a city I spent some time visiting following college. I was able to view street level photos—some including 360-degree views—to see places I had visited when I was there. After leaving Sweden (virtually), I dropped into Italy and walked (again virtually) the streets of Rome. Unfortunately, I couldn't sample any of the cuisine or wine!
What about Wikipedia? Certainly, much of the information on the "free internet encyclopedia" is suspicious—largely because some people and/or corporations use it for propaganda—but there is still good information, too. It is, at least, a good place to start your research. The key is to check the references at the bottom of each entry's page. Those references often contain live links that take to additional information.
For instance, using the same research subject "spy craft" on Wikipedia takes you to a page titled "Tradecraft," a synonym for spy craft. The page contains a list of various techniques used in intelligence gathering. Go to the bottom of the page, and you'll find a link to "A Compendium of Analytic Tradecraft Notes," published by the CIA.
Many government web sites, in fact, can provide writers with the research they need. For instance, thousands of historical documents, photographs, and paintings can be found at the Library of Congress. Writing a spy novel and need to set a scene in the CIA's McLean facility? Check out the virtual tour of CIA headquarters.
For more advice on using the internet for research, check out this primer from Brooklyn College.