Friday, October 19, 2007

Research: Like Salt To Mashed Potatoes, Part 5

How can I meet contacts who fill in my research gaps? (Cops, coroners, marriage counselors, history buffs, etc.)

The way companies operate, how various jobs are done, how people live, how dialects or accents are spoken locally, laws, procedures, etc, all differ from state to state, and decade to decade, so it’s a good idea to get one-on-one expert advice now and then about what we’re writing. But how do we get it? And how do we meet these experts?

Believe it or not, I used to be shy of accosting strangers to get information for my books. I’ve, umm, overcome that. A lot. People in all walks of life enjoy discussing what they do and how they do it. We writers can’t afford to be shy about asking questions.

I write a procedural series, (meaning my characters are law enforcement officials, not amateur detectives) and I set the series in Massac County, Illinois where I live. I began the first in the series with zero knowledge of how the Massac County sheriff does his job. But I was lucky. We’d lived next door to a deputy sheriff who’d served as jailor. My first novel was still in the planning stages (in other words, still in my head) when we happened to run into him one night at a local greasy spoon. We bought his dinner, and I plied him with questions. By the time dessert arrived, I had enough information to commit my idea to paper.

Even if we aren’t personally acquainted with an expert in the field we need help with, quite possibly we know someone else who is. I wanted to interview the sheriff, but I’d never even laid eyes on him, and the detention center is a rather imposing building. Somehow I simply could not work up the nerve to call. A friend who works for the state’s attorney set up the appointment for me. The man in charge of public relations gave me a tour through the detention center, (including where the inmates are housed, and we had to be locked in and out of each area of the facility) and then I spoke with the sheriff. I took notes, and that one tour/interview helped me write the next three books.

After my first book came out in print, a Metropolis police officer, Sgt. Carl Manley contacted me via email to say how much he enjoyed my book, and he appreciated that I hadn’t portrayed local law enforcement officials as Keystone Cops. I later met Sgt. Manley at the annual Superman Celebration, and he has since become a fount of information. Any time I have a question, like how local officials locate drowning victims in the Ohio River, he helps me out. And his answer on that one totally surprised me. Local officials don’t just sit around and wait for drowning victims to float to the surface. They ask area tow boat operators to keep a lookout because their large propellers stir the waters and often bring bodies to the surface. Who knew?

As a “thank you” to this great cop, whenever I need a police officer to help my fictional sheriff and his deputies out, Sgt. Carl Manley shows up in my scene. He loves that.

A great way for us to get expert help is to pay close attention to people’s jobs when we first meet them. If their job (or hobby) sounds like something we might need information on for our writing at some point, we can file their business card in our card file. (You all do have a business card file, right? If not, now is a great time to start one.)

And here’s a tip I learned from author Mindy Starns Clark who wrote THE TROUBLE WITH TULIP. ALWAYS jot a note on the back of the business card about where I met the person or why I’ve kept their card on file. I can’t tell you how many cards I’ve found in my file and wondered who in the world gave them to me. And why I’ve kept them. No telling how many opportunities I’ve missed to sell another book or have another question answered because I didn’t make notes on the back of that card. Sigh.

Writer’s conventions and conferences will introduce us to more experts than we can shake a stick at, and information about conferences for every genre can be found online. The Fiction and Firearms Seminar held in Las Vegas every November introduces mystery writers to some of the best weapons experts in the world. While attending in 2002, I got answers to questions about my murder weapon for my second book. And pictures. And the expert, Captain Massad Ayoob, later blurbed the book for me. Mention Ayoob’s name to just about any cop in America and he will drool over the prospect of spending a day on the shooting range with Ayoob, learning about various firearms. The seminar provided that opportunity for me. There are huge conferences for romance writers and science fiction writers as well.

Most writer’s conventions and conferences invite well-known experts for that genre who are willing and able to answer any questions we might have now or in the future. And the conferences/conventions give us a chance to network with agents and publishers while meeting with the experts who become our informational lifelines throughout our writing careers.

SUGGESTION: Choose an “expert” in your genre, contact him/her and ask at least one question to gain information for your research file.

After the rough draft of my first novel was done, and I was busy revising and polishing, I interviewed the local coroner who also owns the funeral home. Lovely man, but I now know not to eat lunch right before we chat. I had a question about blood pooling, and he’s big into blood splatter patterns. Or is it spatter? Time for another visit with the coroner.


Rick Bylina said...

One of the best tools in our arsenal is the telephone. It's not always practical to track down an expert on a whim, so I use the phone a lot and when I tell other aspiring writers, I surprised by how many are too timid or intimidated to do so. I tell them that most experts are happy to talk about their jobs because, well, they wouldn't be an expert if they didn't like what they're doing.

My example was a call I place to the Medical Examiner's office of a major city and got the chief on the line after one ring. He blissfully answered my questions and then went on and on and on about other fascinating cases. Of course, I imagined him locked away somewhere where he doesn't have much human (alive) contact, but in the end, he turned out to be a great resource.

Bottom line: You can't be shy when getting it right.


Anonymous said...

You're right. Research contacts are easy to find. People love to talk about their jobs, especially cops.

Writers conferences are ideal venues for making contacts. I speak about police procedure/CSI/forensics for several writers conferences across the country each year.

When I'm not speaking or writing, I'm answering questions for other writers. Of course, my book on police procedure is available as well. :)

Joyce Tremel said...

Lee's book is awesome!

Great advice, Lonnie. I'm fortunate enough to work for a police department, so I have lots of experts on hand. Believe me, cops like to talk!

Sofie Kelly said...

I agree with Rick. I've gotten a lot of information with just a phone call. Not only do people like to talk about their jobs, they like to see them written about correctly.

Hey, maybe I should try calling Matt Lauer.

Sandra Parshall said...

I think it's very difficult for many unpublished writers to contact professionals for information. I know it was for me. You feel as if you're nobody, asking busy people to take you seriously. Nevertheless, when I did summon the nerve to ask for help, I got it. Even if you're a bestselling writer, some people will refuse to talk to you -- I read that Michael Connelly is not exactly the darling of the FBI. (Maybe this has something to do with the book he wrote in which an FBI profiler was a serial killer.) But if you never ask, you'll never get the help you need.

Lonnie Cruse said...

Thanks everybody for your comments! I've been off the Internet and without much cell phone coverage for the last few days, admiring the foliage at Falls Creek Falls, Tennessee. I'm delighted to see that you all were reading my post on research!