Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Can't Find an Answer? Call an Expert

"If we knew what it was we were doing, it would not be called research, would it?" Albert Einstein

I was a librarian for several years, and working at the reference desk was one of my favorite jobs! I love doing research, I love history and I love finding answers.  My first two novels are historical and I enjoyed doing every bit of research. 

But lots of people don't like it at all.  I've spoken to paranormal writers who've said that part of the fun of creating make believe worlds is establishing your own rules so you don't have to do any research!

My third novel is a contemporary.  That's not to say, however, that I'll never write another historical!  But research can be time consuming.  In the October, 2010 issue of Romance Writers Report (the national publication of Romance Writers of America), I've written an article providing tips on research, specifically, tips on how to best find an expert when you run into brick wall trying to find an elusive answer to a tough question.  (If you're not a member of RWA, see the complete article below).  

Although the Internet is a great source of information, as is a stack of books from your local public library, there's nothing like going directly to a human source.  Librarians often do this when they've exhausted all print and online resources available to answer difficult reference questions.  And as writers, we can too!  After all, we have a novel to write, not a research paper, and time is valuable.

In my first novel, I needed information on US currency and coins in 1856.  My husband, who collects coins as a hobby, gave me a numismatics book he owned to help me.  After searching through it for a good two hours, I had nothing to show for my effort except a bunch of wasted time!  I looked on the back cover and saw the author's picture and bio.  This numismatics expert was employed by the Smithsonian.  So after finding the museum's phone number on the Internet, I called and was connected directly to him.  He was glad to assist me and answered all my questions!

So when you hit that brick wall, stop wasting time! Pick up that phone and call an expert to help so you can get back to writing!

Do you like research?

Tweet me at maria_mckenzie. Thanks for stopping by, and hope you find my article below helpful!

Research: Utilizing Human Resources

Sometimes a piece of information can be so elusive, it’s not worth finding. And unless it’s needed to move your story along, you can leave it out all together. As Todd Stone says in his Novelist’s Boot Camp, “carefully manage the time you spend researching: You have a writing mission—not a research mission—to accomplish!”

But some facts are necessary for a plausible scenario, and as writers we want to be accurate with our information, so we won’t look ignorant to our readers.

With the Internet at our fingertips, all of us can easily access information in seconds. But what about more complex facts? With a longer amount of time, the Internet can usually provide needed answers. And people we know can often be a direct source for information. None of us hesitates to call the family member or friend who’s a social worker, teacher, police officer, etc., to help us get our facts straight when writing a novel.

However, there are those times when you can’t track down an answer at all, and before you know it, you’ve wasted hours looking for something that you thought would be relatively easy to find. So what should you do after you’ve looked in all available print and online resources, and don’t know anyone personally that can help?

One option is to call your local public library. Sometimes a librarian will give you answers that aren’t exactly what you’re looking for, but the information is close enough. Robert Masello, in his Robert’s Rules of Writing, says, “In fiction veracity is nice…but believability is all that you’re really required to provide and all that your audience has a right to expect.”

But there are those times when the librarian will exhaust all print and online resources and run into a dead end. At this point, the librarian will call an expert. As writers, we can just as easily do this ourselves, instead of using the librarian as “middleman.”

Just tell your selected source you’re a writer doing research on (fill in the blank), and ask if he/she has a moment to help you, then proceed with your line of questioning. This is more beneficial for a writer because you can ask your own questions, as well as bounce ideas off your expert to ensure that they make sense. And if you’re unsure of how to make a scene work, pick your expert’s brain about it! He’ll be glad to suggest some realistic solutions.

Most likely, any expert will be glad to speak to you. Leigh Michaels says in her On Writing Romance, “Most people are flattered by requests for information and eager to help, especially when you say you’re asking because you want to portray their profession or experience accurately.”

Calling a complete stranger to ask for help with research can seem intimidating. But just remember, whoever you’re calling will say one of two things: yes or no. More often than not, it’ll be yes. People love to be used constructively, and most are enthusiastic about giving information to a writer. But if someone does say no, move on. There’s always a willing individual somewhere out there to help you.

When calling, if at all possible, avoid leaving a voicemail. It’s more effective, when making initial contact, to actually speak to your source. That makes a personal impression. An impersonal voicemail might be deleted. And be prepared. Have your questions written prior to your call. Time is money. You don’t want to waste someone else’s while you draw a blank trying to remember everything you need to ask.

You might be asking yourself, how will I know who to call? Depending on what type of information you need, sometimes you won’t know until you start looking. The Internet is a great place to start. Google keywords to find an organization or association, preferably with a local chapter, that can help. But if you strike out this way, don’t hesitate to call your local public library.

The public library can give you contact information from directories like the Encyclopedia of Associations, a standard reference source. And don’t forget about all the great contacts in your local RWA chapters and those in RWA special interest chapters. Lots of writers are or used to be nurses, architects, computer programmers, corporate executives, and the list goes on!

Here are a few tips to get you started when seeking experts in:

Medicine/Medical information: Call a medical library. Medical libraries are located in hospitals and medical schools. If not completely satisfied with the information the librarian provides, ask if she can refer you to a medical expert. Remember, librarians are experts in finding answers, not necessarily explaining them in depth. A fire station is also a possible place for medical information. In some jurisdictions, fire fighters are required to be emergency medical technicians, and after one year they can request further training to become paramedics. You can also try calling your doctor’s office. Most offices have an on call nurse. But if you do this, tell the nurse immediately that you’re doing research, then ask if she has time and is willing to talk to you.

Law/Legal Information: Contact the legal library of your county courthouse, or a law school library. Some law librarians have law degrees, some don’t; it’s not a requirement. But if necessary, ask the librarian if she can recommend a legal professional who can to talk to you.

Law Enforcement: Go directly to a police station. As long as there’s not an emergency, a police officer on duty will be available to help, or refer you to someone who can.

Fires/Fire Safety: Go directly to a firehouse. As mentioned above, if there’s not an emergency, the firemen will be happy to talk to you.

Military: Veterans, and those who are currently serving in some capacity, are all around us. But if you have no family, friends, friends of friends, work contacts, church family or gym acquaintances, go to the phone book. Look in the US Government listing under “Recruiting.” There are numbers listed for the Air Force, Army, Coast Guard, Marines, and Navy. Most likely, the recruiting office can direct you to someone who can help.

FBI/CIA: Call around to some local academic (college) libraries. See if any faculty are retired FBI or CIA and ask if they’d be willing to help you with research. Or, call those agencies directly and see if they can put you in touch with someone to assist you.

Art and History: Many art museums and local history museums have librarians and historians on staff available to help the public.

Science: Call academic libraries to see if they can recommend faculty members in the field of science you’re researching. If you have a local science museum, that’s also a good place to seek out an expert. For art, history and science, never hesitate to call the Smithsonian if necessary!

In closing, remember the benefits of communication the old fashioned way through talking! Your research thrives when you utilize human resources because:

• Experts are willing to help!
• Experts love talking about what they do and want to see their professions accurately portrayed in print.
• You can bounce your ideas off an expert to make sure those ideas make sense. If they don’t, your source can help you formulate a realistic scenario.
• You don’t want to waste time! If a fact is important, but elusive, and you’ve spent too much time looking—pick up the phone so you can get back to writing!


William Kendall said...

Research is still time consuming with the contemporary era, not just historical periods.

Most of it's behind me, though your notice of going to a fire station intrigues me. My central event of what I'm working on involves a very big explosion, with the mixture of explosives and accelerents. I've been thinking of speaking to an officer to see if it feels right.

Maria McKenzie said...

Hi William! You might also try contacting the International Organization of Explosive Engineers. I found them on the Internet (when I was writing about an explosion) and called the chapter chairperson closest to me. He was very helpful! But I'd be willing to bet the firemen can give you all the info you need, as well. Good luck:).

T C Mckee said...

Great post Maria. I have a small section in my novel that needed some info about the true pirates of the Caribbean, without the added Hollywood frills. Through research, I found a professor who is an expert on pirates. He was very helpful and I was amazed at how pirates really were in those days as opposed to what we've been led to believe. Very few had the parrot on the shoulder with the eye patch. It was a great experience and it helped to show things in a way that made my novel a little more unique.

William Kendall said...

I'll give them a try, Maria!

Maria McKenzie said...

T.C., thanks for your comment! It's amazing how the movies distort history. The real facts are always more fascinating.

Name: Holly Bowne said...

This was a very helpful blog post! I recently finished the first draft of my romantic suspense novel and all those messy parts I skipped over to keep my story flowing are now in my face as I start revising! I'm always intimidated to contact people I don't know, but your article has inspired me. Thank you!

Maria McKenzie said...

Hi, Holly. Glad you found the post helpful!

Bob Jones said...

Hi, Maria. Thought I'd give you a resource for aviation research. Anyone who needs information about airplanes, pilots, flight attendants, etc. is welcome to visit AVIATION WRITERS group at Writers Digest Community.Com. This is a group of aviation writers willing to share.