Wednesday, 3 February 2010

A word or two about researching.

I have been asked to give a few tips on research.
Research for the content of such a book as my fourth novel "The Vanavara Protocol" needs to be in-depth and exact. (There is always someone out there who will challenge facts if there is the slightest possibility those facts are inaccurate!... especially with a historical novel set within the time-frame of living memory.)
First and foremost; by far the best bet is good old Google... but there are ways to use Google for much more accurate results:

A standard search for Pre-War Berlin Streetnames returns 3,420 results.

Whenever you search for more than one keyword at a time, Google will search for all of them. If you search for
Pre-War Berlin "Streetnames"... (79 results.)
Google will search for all the words. If you want to specify that either word is acceptable, you put an OR between each item...
Pre-War OR Berlin OR "Streetnames"... (219,000,000 results.)

If you want to have definitely one term and one of two or more other terms, you group them with parentheses, like this:
Pre-War (Berlin OR "Streetnames")... (1,250,000 results.)
This query searches for the word “Berlin” or phrase "Streetnames" along with the word "Pre-War" A Hotkey for OR borrowed from the computer programming realm is the | (pipe) character, (next to the Shift key on the left side of the QWERTY keyboard) as in...
Pre-War (Berlin | "Streetnames")

If you want to specify that a query item must not appear in your results, use a -.(minus sign or dash).
Pre-War Berlin -"Streetnames"... (12,300,000 results.)
This will search for pages that contain both the words "Pre-War" and "Berlin" but not the phrase "Streetnames"

Of course, most of these results will be irrelevant, or tenuous. You will then need to sift the results for the required information; but it is a good indicator of the different methods of search available.

In addition to the basic AND, OR, and quoted strings, Google offers some rather extensive special syntaxes for honing your searches. Google being a full-text search engine, it indexes entire web pages instead of just titles and descriptions. Additional commands, called special syntaxes, let Google users search specific parts of web pages or specific types of information. Specifying that your query words must appear only in the title or URL of a returned web page is a great way to have your results get very specific without making your keywords themselves too specific.
Here are some of the common keywords that you can add to your query in Google:

intitle, allintitle
Restricts your search to the titles of web pages. The variation, allintitle: finds pages wherein all the words specified make up the title of the web page. It’s probably best to avoid the allintitle: variation, because it doesn’t mix well with some of the other syntaxes.
Eg: intitle:"Heinrich Himmler"

inurl, allinurl
Restricts your search to the URLs of web pages. This syntax tends to work well for finding search and help pages, because they tend to be rather regular in composition. An allinurl: variation finds all the words listed in a URL but doesn’t mix well with some other special syntaxes.
Eg: inurl:Reichstag
allinurl:search Reichstag

intext, allintext
Searches only body text (i.e., ignores link text, URLs, and titles). There’s an allintext: variation, but again, this doesn’t play well with others. While its uses are limited, it’s perfect for finding query words that might be too common in URLs or link titles.
Eg: intext:""

Searches for text in a page’s link anchors. A link anchor is the descriptive text of a link. For example, the link anchor in the HTML code O’Reilly and Associates is “O’Reilly and Associates.”
Eg: inanchor:"tom peters"


Allows you to narrow your search by either a site or a top-level domain. AltaVista, for example, has two syntaxes for this function (host: and domain:), but Google has only the one.
You can also use site: operator to exclude certain domains from a search
Eg: google
This is particularly useful for ego searches. You can find out all those sites which mention your name exept your site.
Eg: dave mace

Returns a list of pages linking to the specified URL. Enter and you’ll be returned a list of pages that link to Google. Don’t worry about including the http:// bit; you don’t need it, and, indeed, Google appears to ignore it even if you do put it in. link: works just as well with “deep” URLs- for instance-as with top-level URLs such as

Finds a copy of the page that Google indexed even if that page is no longer available at its original URL or has since changed its content completely. This is particularly useful for pages that change often. If Google returns a result that appears to have little to do with your query, you’re almost sure to find what you’re looking for in the latest cached version of the page at Google.

Searches the suffixes or filename extensions. These are usually, but not necessarily, different file types. I like to make this distinction, because searching for filetype:htm and filetype:html will give you different result counts, even though they’re the same file type. You can even search for different page generators, such as ASP, PHP, CGI, and so forth-presuming the site isn’t hiding them behind redirection and proxying. Google indexes several different Microsoft formats, including: PowerPoint (PPT), Excel (XLS), and Word (DOC).
Eg: homeschooling filetype:pdf
"leading economic indicators" filetype:ppt

Finds pages that are related to the specified page. Not all pages are related to other pages. This is a good way to find categories of pages; a search for would return a variety of search engines, including HotBot, Yahoo!, and Northern Light.

Provides a page of links to more information about a specified URL. Information includes a link to the URL’s cache, a list of pages that link to that URL, pages that are related to that URL, and pages that contain that URL. Note that this information is dependent on whether Google has indexed that URL or not. If Google hasn’t indexed that URL, information will obviously be more limited.

Will get the definition of the term that you have entered. This syntax can be used to get the definitions of words, phrases, and acronyms
Eg: define:dreaming
This query will get you the definition of the word dreaming.

If you want to search for a range of numbers then you can use two dots (without spaces) to represent a range of numbers
Eg: inventions 1850..1899
This query will get you all the inventions between 1850 and 1899


If you include safesearch: in your query, Google will exclude adult-content.
Eg: safesearch:breasts
This will search for information on breasts without returning adult or pornographic sites.

Fetch only Fresh results
First one is to narrow down your search to only the most recent web pages. This is particularly important, since Google has started serving fresh results.
Alex Chitu from the unofficial Google Operating system blog has found that we can use as_qdr query parameter to search only for fresh pages.
In order to use this you have to add a new parameter as_qdr at the end of the url like below
The as_qdr parameter can take the following possible values.

    * d[number] – past number of days (e.g.: d5)
    * w[number] – past number of weeks (e.g: w5)
    * y[number] – past number of years (e.g: y5)

I also use Copernic Agent Pro... a nice application that gives you the ability to cover more of the Web and to get relevant, high quality results grouped into categories. From a single query, Copernic Agent gives you better search engine results by consulting multiple search engines at once, combining their results, removing duplicates and keeping only the very best of the information gathered from queried search engines. ranked as per-cent accurate.
Here's a Screen-shot:


Now, a cautionary word about not necessarily believing that what your research turns up is actually what you want. In the following extract from the book; mention is made of the hotel where the heroine stays. I needed a visual reference of this building for the developing story a little later on. 

Aleksandr Anatoly Sergeyev hurried across Zakharievskaya Street. As he approached the massive, curved colonnade that spanned between the two wings of the building, bordering the wide courtyard in front of the Academy; he glanced across the broad, main thoroughfare of the city that stretched dead straight for eleven kilometres, linking the Borisov highway with the Warsaw road. Across the broad avenue, he saw the black GAZ four-door saloon parked in the shadowy darkness between the boundaries of the pools of light cast by two adjacent street lamps.

He shivered; it was one of the dreaded "Chyornye Voronki," the NKVD "Black Ravens"… the Government's notorious black cars that were used to arrest suspects, often on false charges of being "Enemies of the People." These "Political criminals" were usually imprisoned, sent into exile, or executed. Surprise arrests were often made in the small hours of the morning. He caught a glimpse of a glowing cigarette tip, and could almost feel the cold eyes watching him from the impenetrable darkness of the car's interior. They were there every night. He should be used to them by now.
They had watched him for three months as he came to escort Karyn back to the Hotel Europe. They watched all foreigners, and especially her. They shadowed her everywhere; not that she chose to wander too far. Most foreigners were forbidden to roam about. She, however, was not. Fräulein Doktor Karyn Helle von Seringen; Graduate Doctor of Archaeology with a chair at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt-am-Main, was untouchable. Much as it might rankle them, those evil NKVD bastards dare not lay so much as a finger upon her. If they were to do anything, then it was certain that their next car ride would be a one-way trip in the back seat of one of their own "Black Ravens." A one-way trip out to Brod Woods in the forests north of Minsk.

A few kilometres to the north of Minsk; to the left of the Lahoj highway, there was a village called Zialony Luh. Two kilometres north of the village, in the forests to the south of the Zaslauje Road, they shot people... both men and women; who were brought there every day and every night on trucks, or in the sinister "Chyornye Voronki." For these victims, it was a one-way trip and the inescapable Nagan, or Tokarev bullet in the nape of the neck. 

OK; so fire up Google images and do an advanced search. Great! Lots of pics... but, hang on a moment... the pedestrians are wearing modern clothes, and that little red car?


I knew from previous research that this hotel had been totally destroyed during the war. True, the old centre of Minsk (including the hotel) was re-built after the war in the original style; but was the new hotel an accurate copy?
After much in-depth research across countless Russian sites, I found the only photo of the original building that seems to be available:

Spot the differences. The new building has SEVEN floors... the original has SIX! The frontage is wider on the new building, with two extra windows per floor on each side of the central balconies. There are only THREE gable windows either side of the central arched portico on the very top floor of the building... whereas the modern version has FIVE at either side.
This is a classic example of the trap you fall into if only a cursory research is carried out! Accurate researching takes time and patience... but it ensures your writing doesn't end up looking sloppy  and unprofessional!

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