Research #4 – Those ‘aha’ moments

Most days I start work by scanning 10 to 30 links thrown up by three different Google Alerts that I’ve established. All have to do one way or another with the children’s nonfiction book on homelessness that I’m working on.

Some days it’s depressing work. So many communities struggling in so many ways with so many issues related to the problem. Growing numbers of unsheltered and unhoused people. More and more evidence of the impact of addictions and compromised mental health. So many individuals and neighbourhoods opposing efforts to create more shelter beds, more services and supports.

The scope of my research covers all of N. America. So every day there are a lot of links to follow, articles to read, and determinations to be made about if/how what I’ve just learned relates to my book.

And if it does, how to archive it and track it so I can find it when I need it.

Some days it can be hard going.


Photo: Readers Digest

But I’d estimate that for every five ‘bad news’ stories, there is at least one good one. One of the  most heartening elements of  my research is just how many individuals and organizations are coming up with innovative and effective ways of supporting homeless people. Like this one. Nine-year-old year-old Californian Khloe Thompson was so affected by the homeless women she encountered in her neighbourhood, that she set up a charity called Khloe Kares. So far she has raised over $10,000, some of which has gone towards making homemade bags which she fills with toiletries and other sundries to distribute in her community.

Another bonus to this kind of scattershot research is that it also throws up information that might not directly relate to my subject, but is compelling enough to take note of, and get back to.

Today a CBC news post alerted me for the first time to Metis road allowance settlement. When Metis people were deprived of their homes through the ‘scrip’ program, many settled in the ten-foot road allowance proscribed by the Northern Land Survey, alongside roads and railways lines. 

This led me to check into the subject further through the Indigenous Peoples of Canada website

At first glimpse, I was not sure how and if I could use this information, fascinating – and chilling – as it is. But then I thought of the connection of our modern-day tent cities to the shantytowns of the Depression, and how actions of – or inaction by – governments and bureaucracies often lead people to find their own solutions and create their own communities.

Research #3: Keeping track of online sources


From the beginning of this project – when it was still a tiny germ in my mind – I knew that one of the most important things I needed to do was keep track of all my sources of online information.

It’s not enough to create bookmarks of websites, blogs, database articles, etc. Online material changes, it may get deleted or moved. I therefore keep a Research Master File, using either a Word table or Excel spreadsheet.

For every piece of info. I find online that might be useful, I note:

  1. The title of the article, paper or file and the author name.
    In this way, if worst comes to worst, I can probably track it down again later with just this information.
  2. The name of the website and its url.
    Both is better than just one or another. 
  3. The date I last accessed it.
    This is important. One of the last things I do before I submit a piece of work that is based on online research is check all those links again so I know whether they are current and I can rely on them for fact checking or for including in the body of the final work.
  4. A few notes about the most important content and how and where I think I might use it.
    It’s quite likely that I find something that I think might be useful at one point, but weeks later forget all together a) what I was looking for when I found it or b) why I thought it might be useful.
  5. The name of the hardcopy folder when I’ve saved a printed copy of the article or page*.
  6. A column, left blank at this point, where I can later note where this information is used (chapter and/or page#) in the final  MS .

I know this creates a lot of paper, but I then *print out a copy of the website page or article, date it, and file it in the appropriate hardcopy folder. This may seem unnecessary duplication and a waste of paper, but sometimes it’s quicker just to grab the hardcopy to review rather than to go back to the source, and I need to have a copy in case the electronically archived/bookmarked material disappears.

Lastly, I create an electronic bookmark, saved in a named folder, so I can find the source material again if I need it without resorting to the Research Master File or my hard copies.

(I do also from time to time print out a copy of the list all the bookmarks for this project, which I will admit might be ‘surplus to requirement’).

Sounds like a lot of work, and perhaps OTT organization. But I find that starting out by developing processes for documenting and archiving research sources and content saves me the time and effort of having to make it up as I go along.


Research # 2 – Mining Wikipedia for facts

Not everyone knows that the online encyclopedia Wikipedia is a collaborative – and not wholly authoritative – endeavour. Almost anyone and everyone can contribute and edit articles. Which means that not everything you may find there is definitive or accurate.

But I certainly don’t overlook it as a source for research information.

Rather, I use the footnotes and references at the bottom of any article of interest to use as leads for attributed information I might find useful.

For the purposes of this post, I randomly selected the topic of Pasty. The article is obviously written by someone with a fondness for the traditional Cornish takeout food, and quite a bit of knowledge.

My grandmother’s pasties set the bar high for any I’ve eaten since, and I like to think of myself as the pasty expert, based not only on the number of the meat and potato-filled pastries I’ve eaten, but also on the ‘facts’ I hold to be true. For example, that their crust is intended for thick miners’ hands, the men who carried them underground for their lunch, after which the ‘carrying handle’ could be discarded. And that the only proper ingredients are potato, swede, beef and onions at one end, apple and raisins at the other – despite what the ubiquitous mass-produced Cornish pasty manufacturers (many of whose products are all made across the River Tamar in England) may suggest by their brie and apple, or sausage and cranberry offerings.


Cornish Pasty

But instead of digging too deeply into the article to see what the author had got right or wrong, I scrolled down to the References at the bottom of the page. All 73 of them. Plus links to four books and two other websites.

This is where I am most likely to find useful resources, the origins of which can be followed, explored, evaluated, attributed and footnoted if I ever want to publish a treatise on the issue, and have my work stand up to the scrutiny of a fact checker.

So while Wikipedia is not at the top of the list of sources for secondary or tertiary research, it’s a useful place to check out if you need to know who already knows more about your topic than you do. 

Miners enjoying their Cornish pasty lunch.

Research #1 – Google Alerts


I’m going to be spending the next year deep in research of all kinds for a project that will shortly be announced.

Until then, I have created a number of Google alerts, using four variations of search terms. Which means every morning I receive four emails with between four dozen and 100 links to various articles and references to my subject.

Right now I spend about an hour every morning browsing through them. The ones I think might be useful, I bookmark. Soon I will have to schedule a good hunk of time each week to review each saved item, determine if I will need the information and how I will use, and archive the material I plan to use.

What I love most about research, even these Google-generated items, are the surprises that leap out at me. Referring me to something I had not thought of being associated with my topic. Links to great work being done by wonderful people. Trivia and miscellanea.

The secret will be figuring out what I need, what is too much, and when enough is enough.