Thursday, February 17

Posted by Laurel Garver on Thursday, February 17, 2011 14 comments
Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of Google searches in the research process. They can be an efficient way to fact-check aspects of your story. I've at times used Googlemaps street view to walk around neighborhoods I hadn't forayed into deeply enough on a prior research trip. Heck, I've even used street view to roam cemeteries in France in search of a geographically appropriate surname.

The truth is, I'd never have bothered with the graveyard walks if it weren't for an expert. A French ex-pat I work with once offhandedly identified one of our magazine contributor's home region based on her surname alone. If any native would know regional ties to particular names, I couldn't pick a surname for my characters willy-nilly. An inaccuracy would make my reader lose confidence. Were I more fluent in French, I could have searched regional phone directories, surely. But the graveyard walks yielded what I needed easily enough.

My point here is to not limit yourself to Internet research alone. More often than not an actual human being will have insider knowledge that will keep you from making embarrassing mistakes. And a ten minute phone conversation might just save you from hours of trawling through page after page of useless information.

Just as importantly, you need the right kind of expert who can speak to your story's particular situation. Your family doctor might know the standard procedure for treating a broken leg, but his knowledge is likely limited to treatment best practices under ideal conditions. You know, in in a clean, shiny hospital. But what about injuries in non-ideal conditions, when X-rays and surgery are not readily available? Your family doctor isn't going to be much help--partly because he will fear opening himself to legal liability by dispensing advice that isn't clinically defensible. Your better bet would be to find a military field medic, or a mountain climber trained in first aid--someone who has experience with non-ideal conditions.

One golden truth I learned in journalism school is that people LOVE to be considered experts (well, eight out of ten; take into account a certain percentage of natural jerkiness in the general population). Start by approaching people you already know, and be as specific as possible with the kind of information you're seeking. Your personal contacts can lead you to other experts as well. But don't be afraid to take a leap and call or e-mail a stranger. The worst they can say is "Sorry, I can't help you."

Approach your sources as if you were a reporter doing fact-checking--in other words, there will be no pressure that your source's name will splashed across a front page. For more tips on contacting and interviewing experts, see THIS helpful site, created for student journalists.

Have you made use of experts in researching aspects of your fiction? How might expert insights help make your story stronger? If you could shadow someone for a day to get insights for your story, who would it be?


  1. I'm writing a coffee shop drama, most of it while sitting in a coffee shop - real life research. I also talk with the owner. She's great. I've talked to people who suffer from depression or do what my characters do. It's the only way to be real about the characters.
    (It would be fun to wander around cemetaries in a foreign land.)

  2. I haven't called up an expert but I'll read their books. What I also found to be of great help are blogs. When I was researching South Boston, I found a blogger who had grown up there and still talked about. The best research I found!

  3. The amount of information available certainly is changing what defines experts. It seems like things change constantly now because of the ability to exchange information with other experts in your same field.

    There are still certain things that can't be explained or felt through the web though. Personal experience trumps research imho.

  4. I've never used an expert to help me with one of my stories, although I can definitely see how an actual person would be able to offer information in Internet Search would not; keywords can only bring up so much.

  5. ROTFL at "natural jerkiness in the general population"! Love it. :D

    I have used people as resources, but only ones I know so far. It's been super nice to have a doctor as a husband because he will give me the dirty stuff (no fears I'll sue him, I guess).

  6. I have never used an expert to assist me with my novel, but I have read many books for research!

  7. Like the times when I call my sister to find out what kinds of abdominal stab wounds are fatal, and what organs need to be punctured to cause hemorrhaging. Or what the protocols are when a patient wakes from a coma. Things like that.


    I love having a nurse in the family. :)

  8. Mary: Sounds like you are reaping the rewards of doing real-life research. Good point about real people being helpful for getting into the heads and hearts of characters.

    Laura: I'd urge you to work up your nerve to e-mail that blogger to thank him/her and ask any lingering questions you have about the venue you're researching. It could yield helpful information you didn't know existed.

    Kindros: Someone with personal experience can reveal information that you'd never think to look for. I've found that again and again.

  9. GE: Indeed! And you'd be surprised how many people in your immediate circle can provide helpful information--or lead you to their circle with the expert you need.

    Janet: It's cool to have a medical mind at hand. I've drawn on the expertise of an ICU nurse, a psychotherapist, a family counselor, a veterinarian, several pastors, teens who grew up in NYC and a family of American ex-pats living in England--all people I or my hubby knew. In two cases they referred me on to others to help me more.

  10. Victoria: I think it's great to do some book research--what journalists call "doing you homework" but also approaching an expert with any lingering questions or simply to fact-check information to be sure it's accurate in the real world. I learned hugely helpful things about mental illness by talking to a friend who is a counselor and a counseling professor. He knew best how some DSM4 conditions usually present in the real world, and which symptoms were very rare.

    Simon: Exactly. Isn't someone with hands-on experience helpful? And think of all the boring textbooks you've been spared from reading. :-)

  11. I'm always doing actual hands-on research along with internet research. For me, that's half the fun of writing :)

  12. This is really good advice. I do mostly Internet research, but I rely a lot on books, too. I'm writing about high school acting right now and since I know nothing about that I took out some books on teens and acting to see what kinds of things a teacher or director would advise them to work on.

    Phone calls are a very good idea though! I'm going to have to be brave and make those calls in the future!

  13. Great and timely post. I use Google and Wiki because my library has NOTHING in the way of research materials. So I follow blogs of other Regency writers who have many more mad skills than I.

    Love that question -- If I could follow someone around. Definitely the Prince Regent. He's so misunderstood, in my opinion.

  14. I agree. Several experts have helped me avoid research disasters.

    Personal experience is also valuable. I know more about leukemia and heart disease than I'd like because of family members' situations.

    I also know what it's like to break my elbow. In my first manuscript, the heroine hurts her arm. I had to decide whether it was a sprain or a break. She needed to drive home after that occurred. My experience left no doubt she would never have made it home if it was broken.