Friday, March 7, 2014

The Wonders of Wikipedia

After two years of running circles around me, The Winged Horse is finally off my desk and whinnying at my long-suffering beta readers. With any luck, they won’t find too much wrong with it, meaning that I can unleash it on the world in June as planned.

Meanwhile, I’m beginning on Legends 3, The Swan Princess. It’s a huge, soggy mess at the moment, little more than a bunch of disconnected ideas, half of them tossed up by my subconscious for reasons that remain unclear. So when not pushing myself to complete the exercises in John Truby’s Anatomy of Story, my go-to book for the beginning of any novel, I’m doing research. This is not the kind of in-depth, years-long research I use in writing history—although my mix includes books written by scholars, and even books written in Russian by scholars. Instead, it’s research to spark the imagination, to woo balky characters and tame a plot that threatens to have more branches than a holly bush, some of them every bit as prickly.

And my preferred site for that kind of research, or indeed any kind of research that is at a quick and dirty beginner level? Wikipedia.

Among scholars, such an admission is, shall we say, frowned-upon. And it’s true: Wikipedia articles can only skim the surface of their subjects and sometimes contain errors, despite higher standards imposed in recent years and enforced by the input of dedicated page editors. Even the Russian version, Vikipediia, which tends to have longer and fuller entries on the kinds of obscure topics that interest me—Islam-Girei Sultan of Crimea, the Venerable Trifon of Pechenga, the fortress of Ivangorod (Sebezh), and so on—can go only so deep.

But as a place to start, Wikipedia is marvelous. Most entries have pictures, public domain or Creative Commons, and maps and links to other, more informative sources. The entry for the Pechenga Monastery (where, readers of The Golden Lynx will remember, a certain character has been exiled to ponder his sins) led me to a small book in English, hosted on the digital Internet Archive, not only describing what remained of the monastery in the late nineteenth century and what was still known about its history but also recording legends associated with the monks themselves, including its founder, Trifon. It would be going too far to say that Trifon’s legend is historically accurate, but it is historically attested. And since I’m writing a novel, not a history, historically attested is more than good enough for me.

In other cases, a brief survey of current information addresses my needs. This tends to be particularly true of medical, geographical, and biological information. A list of symptoms, a map showing the range of a particular type of plant or animal, a description of topographical or species characteristics, even dates and the spelling of a name in Russian or Tatar can be invaluable. I go online, read the entry, print it if necessary, and I’m back in my scene. Even for work, if I’m checking the spelling of a name or the date when some event happened, Wikipedia is most likely to have the information I need readily accessible, front and center.

Last but not least, those pictures are precious. I’d love to visit Pechenga, but the chances of that are small. Thanks to Wikimedia Commons, I have at least an idea of what my antagonist may see as he gets ready to wipe the ice of the monastery from his fictional feet. I have downloaded views of the Sura River, Tatar dogs, flags and banners, ancient fortresses, flowers and animals, shamans and their instruments, and much, much more. All these enrich my understanding of the world my characters inhabit, even if they do not appear on my blog or on the covers of my books.

So let’s hear it for Wikipedia. It’s an example of the Internet at its most creative.  And even if you don’t choose, as I do, to support the site during its annual fund-raising campaigns, it’s a project worth celebrating.

Speaking of images,, which I mentioned in a long-ago post, “Images, Images Everywhere,” is closing down as of March 10, 2014. The site owners will move existing accounts, including any unpurchased downloads, over to ThinkStock, owned by Getty Images as is Unfortunately—and perhaps not coincidentally—ThinkStock prices its images appreciably higher, at the same level as Shutterstock. So is no longer a mid-level solution.

Maybe something else will come along to replace it. We can hope, right?

Konstantin Korovin, St. Trifon’s Brook, Pechenga (1894)
From Wikimedia Commons
This picture is in the public domain because of its age.


  1. I do use Wikipedia for some things. For example, it's the quickest and easiest way to get the data on a battle. Look up the battle of Trasimene and you will get all the statistics-Which side won, which lost, how many casualties on each side, how many prisoners taken, which notables perished, when it took place, what strategies were used, what was the historical context, etc. Is everything true? It's probably as well as you can do when your sources are over 2,000 years old. I've never had any readers question my Wikipedia stats. On the other hand purists might question the integrity of your work if you let it be known that you use Wikipedia. I sent my book to a Latin professor and he let me know that it was not a good idea to include Wikipedia in my acknowledgments.

  2. Wikipedia is not considered a primary source, for good reason. It’s source cannot be peer reviewed, and anyone can alter anyone else’s work. I know - I contribute to Wikipedia. That said, as a quick reference it can be very useful. I write historical fiction, and use it a lot but only as a quick reference. I do not rely on it for detailed background information - I go for primary sources as if I were writing a "straight" history. Citing Wikipedia is a good way to devalue your own credibility. If it is factual, you should be able to find a primary source that is credible. Unfortunately, I have found a lot of information in Wikipedia that is simply a cut-and-paste from someone else's work. Citing plagiarism is another good way to devalue your credibility. Also, a lot of it is suspect as to form and fact. The entire point about a citation is to expose your source so others can peer review your material - Wiki does not meet that standard. As a writer, it is important that the background and context of my work is accurately researched and I cite primary references often. That makes the fiction part of my writing seamless - which is my primary objective.

  3. I looked at the Wiki article and this phrase popped out at me: "Text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License;" I didn't dig much, since the edits seem extensive, but do wonder about who photographed the painting, and whether the image falls under a particular "fair use" banner. I'd love to put wiki images on my website, but so far haven't checked out any.

  4. I use Wikipedia all the time for the first stop on any subject or person, and go from there. If I think there is mileage in it, I will dig further. But I agree not everything is as accurate as it could be. I too write historical fiction, and once I've got a bit of background from Wiki, I'm off elsewhere. Sometimes the bibliography at the end can help.

  5. RLB, It's important to check the information on every image in Wikimedia Commons, since the license varies (also the quality). On the download page, it says exactly what you may do with the image. Many old paintings, like the Korovin painting I used for this post, are in the public domain (worldwide or in the US) because they were painted before 1923. Most images with a Creative Commons license can be reused (i.e., on a blog) and even altered so long as you attribute the photograph as requested on the download page (© YEAR Photographer) and list the type of license. Others then have the right to reuse the image from you under the same terms.

    Wikipedia has its problems, certainly, as I indicate in the blog entry. I use it as a jumping-off point rather than taking it as gospel truth. I also have the advantage of writing historical fiction on the basis of 35 years of research as an academic historian, so I can filter and supplement Wikipedia without much difficulty. But I think many people do use it, whether they admit it or not, so why not talk about it? I'm glad so many people have chimed in, and I hope more will join the conversation.

  6. I use it exactly as you and Evelyn Tidman do - as a jumping off point. When you Google a certain thing, Wikipedia is often the first result to pop up. And many of the articles, at least for the time period I write, are well-written and stuffed full of interesting tidbits that have only served to enrich my writing - once verified, of course. But without Wikipedia, I might never have stumbled upon certain things that led to the development of certain ideas. And as Robin Levin states, it's great for information on things like battles. I'm not ashamed to say I use Wikipedia. Would I cite it as a source in a bibliography, should I ever need to? Nah. But I'd be happy to let it be known that the sources I DID use, I found because they were listed in a Wikipedia article.


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