Some years back, I evaluated a manuscript for a publisher. It was a Civil War historical mystery novel, and the Civil War is not exactly my area of expertise. Yet I sent the chief editor seven pages of notes on the book’s historical inaccuracies and plot holes. The editor later told me that, while reading through those notes, she turned to someone else in the office and asked “Who is this guy, Sherlock Holmes?”

It remains one of the funniest moments of my editing career, because it really wasn’t that difficult to do. Almost all of the notes were things that were easy to research. The author had the days of the week wrong in reference to the Battle of Fort Sumter. The date of Easter for the same year was wrong by a month. Currency values were closer to 1980s instead of 1860s. The depiction of proper police methods felt more like Dragnet at times instead of a period when investigative police was a rare thing.

The one and only reason why what I did was unusual was that I’m a knowledge junkie. If I don’t know something, I still have a pretty good idea where to look it up. I have lists of experts to contact, on anything from astrophysics to horse care, from the history of international law to how to sew a dress. My browser’s bookmark bar is a mostly-organized collection of links leading to various topics that I collect, thinking they might be useful someday.

The comparison to Sherlock Holmes is true, but only in this respect: I observe, I collect, and I don’t like being bored. None of that is especially unusual. Anyone can do it.

And if you’re a writer, you should do it. That doesn’t mean that if you want to write a book, you have to become the Phantom of the Library, haunting the stacks and shunning the light of day. Rather, it means you should always keep an eye out for things that are useful. Scratch the surface of almost any topic, and you’ll find something that makes your writing-sense tingle.

Here are some tips to get yourself started. 

Click on the links. If you’re reading this, you’re probably on Facebook, Google Plus, or Twitter (or all of the above and more besides). Links are everywhere. Sometimes, the authors even know what they’re talking about. Often, arguments pop up.

Take a moment to click on them and look at those arguments. If you do this often enough, you’ll figure out where the facts are. If something seems odd, or even better if it seems interesting, plug it into your favorite search engine and see what comes up.

Check Wikipedia. Yes, Wikipedia — because while it’s not considered a true source of scholarly information, the rules require citations. That makes Wikipedia an excellent source of links to more “official” outlets that might not come up on a quick search engine query.

And honestly, on “non-controversial” topics (usually science and technology, or areas of history not typically the target of revisionism), Wikipedia is a good resource on its own. If you spend enough time on the site, you can start noticing the articles that have various contributors editing and re-editing in the “knowledge wars” that Wikipedia is somewhat famous for. (You can also click on the discussion link for a particular page, but I usually avoid them. Imagine the typical comment stream under an average news article, and turn the dial to “snooty.”)

Collect bookmarks. I mentioned earlier that I do this. It’s almost a reflexive habit. My notes are split into Art, Food, History, Language, Literature, Mythology, Politics, Religion, Science/Technology, and Writing, as well as folders for different publishers. (The latter get links for stuff specific to the projects I’m doing for them, if they don’t fit better in another folder.) Those topics get further sub-divided as needed; for example, History gets split into Pre-History, Ancient History, Medieval European, American, English, and so on.

Look at magazines. Print media may not be top dog anymore, but magazines are still all over the place. My dentist, for example, takes care to have a wide selection, and there have been many times when I’ve regretted the efficiency of the staff because dang it, I wasn’t done with that archaeology article yet.

There are many times when you’ll pass by a magazine rack. I’m not just talking about the checkout counter, where they push diet plans and sex tips. I mean the ones with Popular MechanicsAstronomyU. S. News, Discover, National GeographicArchaelogy, and more. Take a moment to scan the headlines on the cover. If nothing seems interesting, that’s fine — it only took two minutes to go through the whole rack, after all. Chances are, though, that you’ll find something you want to take a look at.

Get an Alt-Tab habit. When you’re writing and you come across something that you know you need to look up at some point but you figure you’ll do it later . . . stop. If it’s inconsequential, that’s fine; but if it’s plot-relevant, you need to consider looking it up right then. Do it while it’s fresh in your mind, because if you complete it after the book is done, you may need rewriting that could have been avoided.

One example from a book I edited involved a lot of courtroom details. The author left most of them fuzzy in her first draft before handing it over to me. I wound up having to spend four days just helping her fix issues she could have solved far more easily in her planning stage. (And big thanks to Russ Eonas at the Plymouth, MA District Attorney’s office, who was willing to sit through several phone calls and a couple dozen emails to help us straighten out the details. Great guy.)

Now, pausing to research isn’t for everyone. That can interrupt the flow of a good writing session, and you may still want to deal with it later. That’s fine. Make a note in such a way that you can’t forget it. I’m not talking a sticky note on the monitor. You’re probably working in a document program that allows comments; make use of them! One example from a manuscript I’ve currently go open in another window has to do with architecture. The author described a national landmark using a particular label, and dropped a comment in there to the effect of “Not sure if this is correct, fix later if necessary.” Simple, to the point, and easy to notice again when the author or editor is going through it. (Oh, and she got it right.)

The Great Courses and audiobooks. I mentioned the Great Courses as one of my 7 Tips for Productive Writers post a while back. This is an excellent company to give cash to (or to find in your local library). They’re a 25-year-old company that I practically grew up with. The only catalog I would get more excited about when it arrived in the mail was Lego. Most teens my age carried around a Walkman to listen to their favorite mix tapes. I, the nerd I was, was listening to lectures on history and science. I had those on while mowing the lawn, doing the dishes, building with Lego, playing video games, and biking to school. (Yes, I listened to lectures while on my way to class. What part about “knowledge junkie” did you miss?)

The company curates an ever-changing but very selective catalog of lectures on many different topics, such as history, literature, language, philosophy, math and science, economics and business, and more. Chances are that you’ll find something related to what you want to write. You will find something you’re interested in.

I recommend three different ways of getting their lectures. One is on their site, which is expensive but titles frequently go on special sales (usually a given title is on sale once a year, so keep checking back). The second is on, where they have a smaller list for a lower price, but without additional course materials (outlines and lecture notes, usually). The third is to check your library, which will be even more hit-or-miss, but for a much more affordable price.

Audible is also a great place to find other nonfiction on topics you may be interested in, all for very affordable prices. I’ve picked up several science and history books there. Between the 1-credit price for just about everything, the membership discount prices, and the frequent sales they offer, it’s easy to rack up an impressive library of audiobooks in both fiction and nonfiction. In fact, my only real complaint is that I can’t sort my audio library into custom categories.

Of all these tips, this is the one I’ll stress the most. Unlike the others, you’ll probably need to spend a significant amount of money to get what you want; but you’ll get a high return on that investment. You can listen while driving, exercising, shopping, and yes, playing video games. (“Honey, I thought you said you were going to go do research, not play World of Tanks.” “I am doing research! I’m just also racking up an epic score while learning about

The bottom line is to be what’s called a lifelong learner. This is a concept that dates back to the 1970s in Europe, which just philosophically codifies the idea that if you’re not learning, you’re probably a corpse; so why not step up your game?

A lifelong learner doesn’t learn because he or she has to, but because, frankly, life is interesting. There’s more out there to know than you can ever get in one lifetime, so you’ll never be bored if you just keep your eyes and ears at the ready.

I can trace my moment — the moment that I realized stuff was interesting — back to my fifth grade science class. Up to that point, we were getting the basics. I remember some stuff about continents in first grade. Second grade there were dinosaurs. Third grade was when they started doing more, and we got the solar system and plate tectonics. Fourth grade, we got some biology.

Fifth grade was different. I was at a British-curriculum school in Europe at the time (military brat), which might have had something to do with it. (I have a rather low opinion of typical American-curriculum education.) Suddenly, we were going far more in-depth into physics, and I remember the eureka moment when I was reading the textbook quite clearly. It was a moment of stunned realization that we hadn’t discovered everything yet.

Up until that point, I didn’t know why we were studying science, because we were just talking about stuff far off and away, stuff that didn’t have anything to do with me. History was different. History was something with stories attached, and where we could go and visit places where history happened. (Very easy, actually; especially in Europe, where you can’t walk ten paces without running into history.) But even then, I didn’t have the idea that history was still being discovered. I certainly didn’t realize that there were still things to find in science.

That was the moment I became a knowledge junkie. It hit in fifth grade and has never gone away. The thrill of discovery, of piecing things together, never went away. It was just joined some years later by another thrill: the joy of sharing it. I don’t just mean babbling along about stuff I found cool; that I could do since I learned to talk. I mean the joy of sharing the spark of discovery. The ability to take that knowledge and present it to someone else in such a way that they became interested in the story I was telling.

In other words, the moment I discovered the joy of being a storyteller. 

Writing a compelling story is difficult, but a lot of it can be found in something as simple as learning history, science, philosophy, and more. The more realistic a story is, the more your audience can believe in it. The more real-world knowledge you have, the more likely you are to tell a realistic story.

Details matter. You can describe a barbarian horde sweeping across cities; but imagine the detail you can provide if you first study Mongol and Viking raids. You can make up a religion for your world; but imagine what you can draw on if you look at Greek mystery cults first, or the practices of the ancient druids of Gaul, or the animistic beliefs of the pre-Islamic Arabians. You can describe spaceships moving between stars; but what sort of realism can you provide when you realize that, under all foreseeable technology, it will still always take three days to go from Earth to the moon without using up a truly staggering amount of fuel?

Knowledge is out there. You can’t go throughout your day without tripping over it. The only question is taking a moment to notice it. Do that, spend the effort, and you will enrich your writing. I guarantee it.