The Temporary Expert

Need to get an insider's viewpoint on a specialty topic? You don't need no stinkin' expert. Immerse yourself in the subject at hand, then be your own insider. These three writers prove the efforts are well worth it.
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So you want to write about ice fishing for your metro newspaper, or you're dying to include a nightclub DJ as a significant character in your novel. You've got a few options:

(1) Interview people who know about that area of specialty and do some Internet and library research on the subject.

(2) Fake it. Really, how many ice fishermen are reading the Orlando Sentinel, anyway?

(3) Pull on that thermal underwear or load up your kid's iPod with dance tunes, then learn how to do the job yourself.

Freelancer Linda J. Gilden spoke with three writers who opted for No. 3 for various projects—and they all found the experience equally rewarding. Consider stepping out of your own comfort zone to make your writing more authentic with firsthand information, characters, scenes, plot points and dialogue.

The writer: Barbara Ehrenreich

The work: The nonfiction book Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America (Metropolitan Books)

The experience gained: Learning how to survive working low-paying, entry-level jobs

Ehrenreich wondered how women forced into the job market by welfare reform would survive, so she decided to discover the answer firsthand. In preparation for her book Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich worked low-paying, entry-level jobs in three different regions of the country. In each location, she found that no matter how many jobs she worked, it was difficult to make ends meet.

In Florida, Ehrenreich worked in two restaurants. When those jobs didn't pay her bills, she added a third job cleaning motel rooms. In Maine, she had a cleaning job, as well as a job in a nursing home. In Minnesota, Ehrenreich worked for one of the nation's largest employers, Wal-Mart.

Before beginning her on-the-job research for Nickel and Dimed, Ehrenreich already knew a lot about poverty and low-wage America. She'd written many essays touting the middle-class ignorance of the subject. So what could she gain from joining the ranks of those low-income, single women and mothers?

"I didn't know as much as I thought I knew," she says, "and I learned plenty of things I couldn't have learned just by interviewing people. Like about how hard the work was, even for a fitness freak like me. Like how humiliating it is to be yelled at by management, drug-tested, etc. There are things that are best learned by interviewing, and other things you can find out only by putting yourself physically in the situation."

The writer: Yvonne Lehman

The work: "Name That Tune," a novella published in the collection Strings of the Heart (Barbour Publishing)

The experience gained: Playing the violin

The main character in Lehman's story "Name That Tune" is a violinist. When the man of her dreams walks out on her, she immerses herself in her music and spends time in her grandfather's shop building violins. When a famous violinist comes to her town, she begins spending time with him.

To adequately describe what her characters experienced, the author signed up for violin lessons. Says Lehman, "In taking lessons, you learn the basics, and you can use some of those principles in the book and relate them to learning other things. You can contrast a beginner with a pro. You get the feel of the music. You begin to understand the difficulties of learning and how some have natural ability while others struggle. You see firsthand what a music shop looks like. It takes more than going just once or twice. After going once a week for months, you begin to feel like a part of music, an insider instead of someone on the outside looking in."

The writer: Phillip Reed, consumer advice editor for www.Edmmunds.com

The work: An article on how the car business works

The experience gained: Working as a car salesman

When the editors of www.Edmmunds.com decided to do an article on the ins and outs of the car business, Phillip Reed took an undercover job as a car salesman. During a three-month period, he worked at two different types of car dealerships: one a high-volume, high-pressure dealership and the other a laid-back, smaller car lot that offered "no haggle" prices. His work allowed him an inside look at the business and an up-close look into the life of a car salesman.

Of this experience, Reed says, "I thought a lot about the depth of information I got from my undercover research as opposed to what I could've gotten by doing, for example, interviews with car salesmen. First of all, in interviews, the salesmen might not have revealed all the tricks they use. But the sales manager trained me so he could make money off me. He held back nothing, because he had a vested interest in my success.

"Beyond this, though, being a salesman, rather than just learning about selling cars, allowed me to experience everything. For example, I felt the pride of working hard for a sale and sharing the excitement of the buying process with my customer. I found out what it was like to stay up until 2 a.m. selling a car and having to be on the lot again at 8 a.m. I experienced what it was like to be chewed out by my manager for being in a selling slump. The only thing I couldn't truly experience was being trapped in this life—I knew mine was a limited experiment."

Why was the experience of being a car salesman better than just reading about one? In Reed's words: "You share in the feelings of your co-workers, and you actually experience rather than intellectually process the information secondhand."

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