Research: Utilizing Human Resources, Published by Romance Writers Report, October, 2010 (see complete article below)
Research can be a big part of writing, so if you're a writer and need a few tips, here's some information that can help. Before discovering my love of writing, I was a librarian. I enjoy doing research, but not everybody does. For those who dislike it, I hope this makes the research process a bit more pleasant!
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. Although we’re not doctors, lawyers, law enforcement agents, etc., we play them on TV. Okay, not exactly, but we do our best to accurately portray them in print.
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, experts will be glad to talk to you, and be impressed that you’re taking the time to portray what they do accurately. People who love their work enjoy talking about it. Once you get a police officer or federal agent talking about what they do, it’s hard to shut them up. 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 message on 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.
As writers we want to entertain, but we also want to be accurate with our research—or at least accurate enough to be believable. 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—talking! Your research thrives when you utilize the 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
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