New tools – how can writers benefit from using the Internet?
Much of the publishing industry’s interest in digital media spins around questions of marketing and packaging books. But last December I gave a presentation at a conference which explored how writers could also take advantage of a range of new tools, to save themselves time and increase the depth of their research.
While writing Damn His Blood, I used several new resources at one point or other – most of them falling under the Google umbrella of products. Google Books was probably the most prominent of all them. Google estimate that around 130 million unique books exist in the world and, of them, that 15 million had been scanned by the end of last year. All these books are keyword searchable, and they were handy for early explorations of a topic and for starting points before I set off for the library.
Similarly useful were Google Maps and Google Street View. For the poor (in the monetary sense) author, snared in an inflexible routine and unable to afford the train fares for everywhere they want to describe in prose, going for a walk in Google Street View is a worthwhile pastime. On top of these was the British Library Newspaper Archives, which have been gradually opening up over the past few years and contains thousands of pages from nineteenth century publications. And, finally, there was Delicious – a handy repository for all of the links.
There are many other services I could mention, and I’m sure that in their own way a new generation of writers are sifting the Internet in their own way. But just the other day I spotted Google’s Ngram Viewer – which was the catalyst for this post and something that I thought was worth a mention.
For those familiar with Google Trends, then Google Ngram works within a similar interface. But as Trends enables you to compare the popularity of search-terms on the Internet over a set period of time, Ngram allows you to plot the changing popularity of specific words of time – something that it does by combing the data from Google Books.
You can narrow the timeframe to a period you want, and all the results are plotted on a graph. Below is an example that I’ve just processed – showing four words that have gone in and out of fashion over the past few centuries: countenance, digital, jolly and awesome.
But while this is obviously useful to the curious or armchair etymologist (if such a person exists), is it of any practical value to the writer? I’m not immediately sure, though words are writer’s tools and it is always useful to know as much about them as possible. A decline in a specific word is usually going to be tied to the downfall of a sub-culture, a fashion or a belief. The words that we use tell you lots about who we are, and what were our thoughts and preoccupations at a given time. Google Ngram lets us visualise this.
In this second graph, I’ve put in the words ‘phrenology’ (a psychological theory or analytical method based on the belief that certain character traits are indicated by the size and shape of the skull), and ‘scientist.’ They’ll serve as an example for what I talking about.
It’s interesting to see the high water mark of phrenology in the 1820s and 1830s plotted here, and you can see just how quickly the theory fell out of popularity. Likewise you can see that hardly anyone used the term scientist until the 1860s – and therefore to describe anyone – such as Priestley or Jenner – as a scientist in 1800 would be anachronistic. (In fact the word scientist was not invented until 1833 – and there’s an interesting article on this here).
So, in its own little way I think that Google Ngram does have its place. It’d be interesting to see what words came to prominence during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, or earlier in the dark days of the wars or McCarthyism in the fifties. For editors and subs it’s a useful fact-checker, and – like most of the innovations from Google Labs – everyone else can spill quite a bit of time over it too.
Image credit: Dani Sarda