Tuesday, December 20

Posted by Laurel Garver on Tuesday, December 20, 2011 3 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 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?

**Repost from February.


  1. I've come to find that the library is really helpful. There's so much in the library that isn't online. I haven't asked an expert yet, but I'm sure I'll find need to. Great post on an under-used resource.

  2. Great advice! I find some of my ideas come from eavesdropping on conversations of people expounding on their favourite subjects :)

  3. I had my sister, a former medevac pilot, read a story I wrote about paramedics. She was able to identify aspects of the culture and outlook of those professionals that I never would have considered and could never have found online. Great post!