Hello Readers and Writers! Today, I’m revisiting and refreshing a post from 3 years ago. In a period where news stories diverge widely depending on where they come from and even Facebook (that authoritative pinnacle of reliable information) is busy “fact-checking,” exploring the reliability of sources isn’t just for writers—though it’s still awfully important for us! I hope these quick tips are helpful—
All the best, Anne
One of the biggest challenges of writing historical fiction is keeping it “historical.”
Since all of my current stories are set in the 30s and 40s, I’m required to know all sorts of minutia, from skirt lengths to cigarette brands to how to simulate silk stockings when there are none to be had. Some days, research takes more time than writing.
Finding sources isn’t particularly difficult. Finding trustworthy ones—that’s the trick.
The internet is full of information, some of it true, some well-meaning but mistaken, and some blatant lies. I enjoy scouring the library’s shelves for texts on my topics, but even paper and binding aren’t a guarantee of accuracy.
It can be frustrating, but I’ve found that asking a few simple questions helps eliminate unreliable sources quickly and gets me back on track.
1. Who wrote it?
A quick visit to a site’s “about” page, a scroll to the bottom of the screen, or a peek at the sleeve of a book can reveal a great amount of information.
Is the author a primary source—in other words someone who actually witnessed the events they’re writing about? Are they an expert in their field? Is it a hobbyist who uses reliable sources they’ve uncovered? Are they affiliated with a particular group or philosophy? Or are they just a mysterious voice from some dark corner of the Web?
Personally, I dig for primary sources whenever I can. Diaries, memoirs etc. have the benefit of giving historical information, plus a ‘feel’ for the era. I pair these with books written by experts, especially ones with long lists of primary sources that they used in their research. (I may as well let someone who’s paid to do the research do some of it for me!)
Sometimes something as simple as the website’s address can be an indicator of reliability. Since my primary focus is World War II, I’m always pleased to find a website with a “.mil” at the end of the address—these are official sites of the U.S. military, and often have a wealth of information from the period as well as modern sum-ups. (My most recent find was an article of a U.S. doctor’s observations of German field hospitals—a little obscure, but exactly what I needed!)
2. Why did they write it?
Most writing fits into one of three broader categories: writing to inform, writing to entertain, or writing to persuade. It’s helpful to discern an author’s purpose because their purpose will affect the way they present their information. Are they going to list carefully researched facts or are they going to arrange them strategically to try to elicit a reaction from their readers?
One key to figuring out an author’s purpose is to look at their use of facts vs. opinions.
A fact is something verifiable, something that can be tested and proven. An opinion is a conclusion that an individual draws, generally from their perception of facts.
Canned meat played a role as a food source during World War 2: Fact.
Spam is tasty if you cook it right: Opinion.
It’s almost impossible to write without including opinion statements. The question is, does the source use facts to strengthen and verify their opinions?
“She was a terrible girlfriend,” is one person’s opinion. However, if you tell me that the “terrible girlfriend” never silenced her phone during movies, vandalized his apartment, insulted his mother, and kicked his kitten every time she came in the door, I’ll probably agree with your opinion.
Of course, not all facts are created equal.
It’s a pretty clear sign that an author is trying to convince you of their point of view if they fall into using “ad hominem” statements. Meaning “against the person,” these statements use facts that don’t have any bearing on the discussion at hand. The goal is to tarnish the person’s character.
For instance, what if “She was a terrible girlfriend” was supported by the facts that she flunked her seventh grade Social Studies exam and once got arrested for jay-walking? First, I’d wonder if anyone actually does get arrested for jay-walking, because I’d better be more careful, and then I’d wonder what those facts have to do with her girlfriendliness and question the reliability of the author.
3. How does it compare to other sources?
One day I was researching Rudolf Hess’ bizarre choice to parachute alone into Scotland, apparently attempting to create peace between Nazi Germany and Great Britain. I poked around the internet and found a site that seemed to have a pretty thorough account.
It didn’t take too long to see that the author was a pretty big fan of Hess. And it was odd that he kept trying to blame Poland for Germany’s invasion…
Oh. It was a neo-Nazi site.
It took me far longer to figure that out that it should have, but there were no swastikas, the site title and footer didn’t tell anything about the writer’s philosophies, and the writing tone was calm and reasonable. The author even used real quotes to back up his points.
Aha! The quotes!
The quotes were the first thing that gave him away. You see, I’d read the books he was taking the quotes from. He used the words of Churchill and other Allied leaders verbatim but completely out of context and in such a way that they supported his bias. Closer examination of the other facts revealed an unreliable source.
If accuracy is your goal, it’s essential to take time to examine multiple sources and multiple types of sources. (Don’t get caught by internet sites that just copy and paste from each other!) Not only can a broad base of information help us catch errors and false information, but different sources provide varied points of view. They round out our understanding of people and events. They make our stories richer.
Do you have any advice on finding reliable sources, questions you ask, or stories to share?
Happy researching, reading and writing! I’m off to research the effects of my morning coffee on my sink of dirty dishes.
Many thanks for visiting!