Conducting Research with Ridley Pearson

In this exclusive interview, Ridley Pearson, The New York Times best-selling author of 13 novels explains that well-conducted research into the kinds of characters you are writing is essential for writers.
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Ridley Pearson, The New York Times best-selling author of 13 novels, says he is one of those "high energy, Type A people that needs to be busy." So, to keep himself busy, the author of the recently released suspense thriller Parallel Lies (Hyperion) takes on numerous projects to keep his mind occupied and "churning."

Pearson, whose novels include Middle of Nowhere (Hyperion) and Beyond Recognition (Hyperion), relies heavily on well-conducted research. "I put a significant emphasis on research because I think one way to suspend the reader's disbelief is to base the novel in as much truth as possible."

The author began his writing career working on assignments for trade magazines. "I found it kept me writing and added to my income," he says. In addition to writing for magazines, he also worked as a musician, a house cleaner at a hospital and a dishwasher. Each of the experiences helped develop his writing career.

"I worked as a house cleaner at a hospital. So, I was cleaning the emergency room and the operating room, I was cleaning the patients' rooms and talking to them, I was interviewing doctors without them knowing I was interviewing them."

Pearson considers the interview process to be one of the key elements in his plan of attack when conducting research, which, for him, is an ongoing process. He splits interviews into two distinctive parts—the technical and the personal.

"One of the things you learn when you're writing [for] trade magazines ... [is that] if you order your questions in the way you want your article to be written and then ask them in that order, all the work is done for you," he says. He considers establishing the order and content of the interview questions to be the technical part of his research.

Generally, Pearson begins the technical portion by crafting a few fictionalized chapters that involve the type of individual he'll need to interview later. In these chapters, Pearson will make educated guesses about the character using research he has done at the library and on the Internet.

As he works on the book, he also starts what he describes as the tricky and time-consuming process of finding the "right" person to interview. He locates most interviews by contacting PR representatives: "If they can connect you with other, more experienced interviews, all the better."

Once he is certain the fictionalized chapters will be in the novel, he says, "I send that person that I've identified, and has agreed to do my interview with me, those chapters." So, when Pearson conducts the interview, the person knows what will be asked and when.

When Pearson prepares the interview, he says he forms the questions the same way that the character will ask them in the book.

"[That way,] they come out basically the same way it would have if my protagonist, or whomever, had come across this person and done what he or she's going to do."

By the time he walks into the interview, Pearson says he will have rewritten the scene the expert will "play" at least once, but usually many times.

After the technical portion is completed, Pearson moves on to the personal element.

"I think every fiction writer, to a certain extent, is a schizophrenic and able to have two or three or five voices in his or her body," he says. "We seek, through our profession, to get those voices onto paper."

Pearson says that authors are great at creating a woman in one story and a villain in another. Developing characters becomes more difficult after you've created hundreds of them, he says.

"So, my thing is that I use the second half of these interviews to get as much detail about a person's life as I can to make those characters vivid on the page."

Pearson does this so one book doesn't read the same as the next. However, Pearson's plan of attack for conducting research wouldn't be successful if he didn't approach the interviews in a very careful manner.

"I've had interviews ... where all of a sudden the interviewer just starts telling me everything about (himself)," he says. "And I'm sitting there thinking, 'Wait, you're the interviewer, you're supposed to be asking me the questions.'"

Pearson says that interview subjects are more than willing to share information about themselves, but when an interviewer goes into the interview spouting his researched knowledge, he can turn off the subject immediately.

"You're better to go in there not knowing anything, even if you know it, and be willing to be ignorant," he says. "Be willing to sit at these people's feet and absorb as much as you can, rather than share as much as they don't want you to share."

That's not to say, though, that an interviewer shouldn't be informed. Pearson advises writers to find out as much as they can about their subject.

"You don't want to go in and ask the wrong questions of the wrong person—you waste their time. So, you've got to do your homework.

"That said, I don't think you should share that you've done that homework. The way you'll show you've done it the best is to just know what to ask, and what not to ask, of each person."

Spotlight Question
What advice do you have for first-time writers who also have a full-time job?
The first-time writer will say, 'I don't have time to write my book. I have a full-time job.' Well, so did I, and I got my books written because I loved it [writing], and I still do. I believed it was necessary to get lots of words behind me in order to get better. I'm still only half the writer I hope I will be. The way you get better is putting words on the page and getting them behind you. For the first-time novelist you've got to get up at 5:30 in the morning and write until 7, make breakfast and go to work. Or, come home and work for an hour. Everybody has an hour in their day somewhere.

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