[When researching your novel], reading has its advantages, but it has limitations as well. You can’t ask a book a question. It won’t bring up information you didn’t think to ask. It can’t clarify anything. A real person, on the other hand, instantly overcomes these limitations and may even hand you information you didn’t realize you needed.
But just how do you find someone to talk to? And how do you ask? Won’t he get mad that you’re bothering him? How much do you pay her? What’s the etiquette at an interview? These are some daunting questions, so let’s take them one at a time.
The first step, obviously, is finding someone to consult. Sometimes you just get lucky. My first book was about a man suffering from what psychologists call dissociative identity disorder (DID). (That’s multiple personalities to you and me.) I read everything I could get my hands on, but there were a lot of things the books didn’t say. As it happened, my wife was taking a psychology class at the time and she mentioned my book to the professor. He was fascinated! DID, it turned out, was his specialty. When I heard about this, I hurried to call the psych department to confirm his office hours, and I went down to see him the following day. As I said—lucky.
Luck, of course, doesn’t work all the time. A more reliable way to find contacts is simply to ask all your friends and family if they know anything about the field you’re researching. You’d be surprised at some of the contacts you can find this way. (“Didn’t you know your great-uncle Ben worked as a lumberjack for fifteen years?”) Even if this doesn’t yield a direct contact, it can lead you to the friend-of-a-friend system. When I first expressed interest in contacting the FBI, for example, a friend of mine told me his parents knew an FBI agent assigned to the Kalamazoo Field Office.
You can also do cold contacts. This involves getting hold of people you’ve never heard of (and vice versa), and it often calls for some preliminary research. I was working on a supernatural piece that involved advanced botany, and the friend-of-a-friend system was proving a dead end. I live in Ann Arbor, home to the University of Michigan, so the next obvious step was to hit the botanical laboratory.
The department’s Web site wasn’t very helpful, so I was forced to go down to the university for a quick visit. The botanical department receptionist was quite busy and verged on being rude, so I didn’t tell her I was a writer looking for information. Instead I asked for any flyers or booklets about the biology department, since the information I needed didn’t seem to be online. The catalog she gave me to look at (she said I couldn’t keep it) listed all the professors and their specialty areas. I copied down several names and phone numbers, thanked her sweetly, and left. Over the next few days, I made phone calls until I located a researcher who was working on a botanical DNA project and was able to make an appointment for an interview.
Do I get nervous calling people I don’t know? Very much so. I need the information, though, so I force myself to push those phone buttons. I have a tendency to babble when I’m edgy, so I often write out what I want to say in advance in case I start blithering or stuttering. When my source picks up the phone, I simply say (or read), “My name is Steven Harper. I’m a novelist, and the book I’m currently working on involves botanical DNA. I heard you would be a good person to talk to about this. Would you be able to answer a few questions?”
A note here: Always introduce yourself as a novelist, never a writer. The word “writer” is often associated with “starving” or “wannabe” or “failing.” The word “novelist,” however, has a more brisk, down-to-earth connotation. It boils down to the preconception that writers are artists (and therefore slightly suspect) while novelists are businesspeople. If you’re doing research for a short story, say instead, “I’m working on a short story for submission to _____________.” And name the magazine you intend to submit the story to. This makes you sound more businesslike—you already have a market in mind.
So you’ve completed the preliminary research and are making the call. What if the contact is rude or unwilling to talk to you? The situation can still be salvaged: “No problem. Sorry to have bothered you. Could you perhaps recommend someone else I could talk to? I’d really appreciate it.”
Let’s assume, however, that your contact is willing to talk to you. Most of them will be. Really. You are a writer—er, novelist—something many people find endlessly fascinating. You’re also giving them a chance to lecture you about their fields of expertise. Major bonus! People love talking about themselves and their work, especially if what they say has a chance of ending up in print. They also appreciate a novelist who wants to get the facts right. My mother is a retired nurse, and she can’t stand medical shows because they never get hospital procedure right. As a teacher, I feel the same way about shows set in high schools. Any novelist who asked us about how either profession really worked would be greeted with a certain amount of enthusiasm, if not cake and ice cream. Finally, most people find it flattering to be seen as an expert on a topic. So don’t worry that you’re bothering people. The vast majority won’t mind in the slightest.
If you only have a few quick questions, a phone consultation will often do. (“It’ll only take about five minutes. Is now a good time or should I call you back?”) If you need something a little more elaborate, ask if you can make an appointment for an interview. You need to be flexible and operate at their convenience, of course. Remember, they’re doing you a favor.
Some people will offer to consult via e-mail. This can work well if your contact is in another city or overseas, making telephone calls expensive and personal interviews impossible (though Skype and other Internet programs can overcome this). The problem you may run into, however, is that people often give too little detail in e-mail. They may be willing to go on for several minutes in person, but only give a terse, one-sentence answer if they have to write it down. Be prepared to reply with a polite request for more information.
Now let’s assume you’ve set up an interview. That brings up the question of mechanics—what to wear, what to bring, and so on. If you’re talking to a total stranger in an office setting or in a private home, you’ll want to dress up a bit. I normally never wear slacks, but you can bet I did when I talked to the FBI! On the other hand, if you’re going to be in a barn talking to a farmer about the care and feeding of horses, your best bet is blue jeans, boots, and a flannel shirt. If you aren’t sure, err on the side of dressiness.
Bring whatever method of taking notes you prefer. I take a digital recorder, but I always ask permission to use it. I also have a notebook and two pens in case one runs out of ink. (Asking to borrow a writing implement looks unprofessional.) Lastly, I bring my card. If you don’t have one, I really recommend getting some printed. Many computer programs will also let you print your own. Overall, cards are quite inexpensive, and handing one out adds a businesslike touch. If you don’t have a card, write your name, address, and phone number on two or three 3 x 5 cards and bring them instead.
Write out a list of questions in advance. You don’t want to waste your contact’s time while you hem and haw over what else you want to ask. Besides, pre-writing the questions is a more professional approach, and you are a professional.
What do you offer to pay your contacts? As a rule, nothing. Instead, tell them that you’ll put their name and title on the “Acknowledgments” page and send them an autographed copy of the book when it comes out. For a short story, you send an autographed copy of the magazine. And always, always, always send a thank-you note after the interview:
Dear Ms. Smith,
I just wanted to thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with me. Your help was invaluable and will make the book [story] far more accurate than I could on my own. If you think of any other information to add, please don’t hesitate to contact me.
By the way, if you interview your contact over a meal or in a bar, you are expected to pick up the tab, even if the contact was the one who suggested the idea. It’s a tax deduction, so save the receipt!
Sometimes it takes a little work to get what you need, but you can’t give up. When I first contacted the friend-of-a-friend FBI agent, he told me I had to talk to the Special Agent who dealt with the press. This Special Agent referred me to the main press office in the Washington, DC headquarters. I contacted the office there and was told to fax them a copy of the questions I wanted to ask and that someone there would call me back to answer the ones whose answers weren’t classified. I did this and got quite a lot of information over the phone. But I still wanted to see inside the Detroit Field Office. I made several phone calls to the McNamara Federal Building, but none of them were returned. I finally drove down there, zippered folder in hand, to see if showing up in person would net me a better response.
It did, though only a little better. I briefly met with a Special Agent, who told me I would have to clear a visit with Washington, DC first. So back home I went for another round of telephoning. Eventually, I got the interview I needed with the Special Agent in Charge at the Detroit Field Office.
Writing is an exercise in persistence.