Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Google Alerts: Online Research for Dummies...like me!

Does the word "curling" ring a bell?
(Photo Jean Mills)
In my role as online content writer for the Canadian Curling Association, and as a past contributor to The Curling News, I am always on the lookout for stories featuring the people and issues that drive the sport. Yes, believe it or not, curling does have its intriguing celebrities and hot-button issues, and I'm always trolling for something new and interesting.

But you may have noticed this phenomenon: the sport of curling doesn't make it into the headlines - or even on to the sports pages - very often. On the internet, you have to know where to look. That's a lot of research time.

So to facilitate the research and fact-finding process, I subscribe to Google Alerts. It's like having your own electronic clipping service automatically send you links to articles that fit your search criteria. In other words: Online Research for Dummies.

To activate your own Google Alert, go to the Google home page. On the tool bar, select "More". From that list, select "Even More". A page with numerous Search options will appear, with Alerts at the top of the list. Simply click on it and follow the instructions to set up your own robo-researcher.

I have multiple alerts, all of them containing words/phrases that will pick up the stories I need to write my columns and stay on top of the news in the curling world. You might want to set an alert for, say, IT governance, or accounting jobs, or risk management. Or a certain writer or business leader. Or yourself! (But be warned - my classic old-lady name usually results in alerts for obituaries. And there are other Jean Millses out there who write about cool things like Wiccan, and early learning skills in young kids. You might find yourself associated with all sorts of unexpected activities. Just saying...).

Sometimes you end up with obscure items that don't seem to fit but do, actually, contain the words you set for your Alert. For instance, my "curling club" keywords sometimes turn up soccer stories from the UK: someone "curled" a shot into the net, or a particular football "club" just fired its manager. Sometimes the curling club just hosted a book sale or was the scene of a car accident. Oh well. All grist to the mill.

Easy to set up, easy to use, and a time-saver: Google Alerts is a great online tool that you can customize to suit your research needs.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Writer on the rails...

A few weeks ago I went on a trip that I've been dreaming about for a long time:

I rode The Canadian from Toronto to Vancouver. Yes, I was a writer on the rails!

Did I get much writing done? Not really. At least, not on paper.

Writer on the rails...
But what I did do was think. A lot. About what I was reading. About my writing life. About what I might write next, and whether I was up to the effort of rebuilding my fiction-writing life on top of a very busy paying-gig writing life. Writers need to do this sometimes. We need to stop, and think, and fill up that jug that we so quickly empty when we're working. Riding the rails for four days was a gift.

Hour after hour of gazing out a window at a changing landscape of trees, rocks and water. That was Northern Ontario which goes on forever...until you hit Winnipeg.  More hours of watching the rolling landscape gradually flatten into the prairies of Saskatchewan. Flat? Yes. Boring? Never! (I'm reminded of the story I heard from a friend: Family moves from Saskatchewan to BC, from the prairie to the mountains. Kids complain: "But we can't SEE anything! These mountains are in the way!")

Wine country in BC
Then the foothills, and the Rockies gradually rising up and surrounding the railway tracks. The Canadian doesn't do the loopy, side-of-mountain route that the Rocky Mountaineer does (tunnels, spectacular switchbacks). No, we followed rivers, and sometimes the Trans-Canada highway. We sat on sidings - frequently! - as freight trains, sometimes kilometres long and stacked with double container cars, took precedence over our tourist train. (No matter. No rush.) We saw May's "Super Moon" rise over Kamloops during a late-night stop. We watched the lush farmland around Chilliwack soak up the sun as we rocked by. And then into Vancouver, where urban and green hold hands in a unique landscape of cityscape, sea, mountain and rain forest.

So, did all those hours of watching and thinking clarify my writing life?

Not sure. But it didn't hurt. Riding the rails - taking time out to just sit. And think. And watch. And read. And luxuriate in it all.

It didn't hurt my writing life. Not a bit.


Okay, I did do a little writing. And I mean a little...

The Canadian: Day One

View from the window:
Trees, water, and low grey clouds.
Nothing? Everything.

Watching for wildlife.
Beaver? Moose? Bear? Eagle? Nope.
Fellow travellers.

Train life: one long line,
See only the car in front -
'Til the curve. Then - all.

Looking back...