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How to Make Friends and Influence People, or the Art of Research

01/18/2011

Ah, research. My favorite subject. I’ve had a lot to say on the subject already, and I’ll have more to say in the months ahead about the research I did for BURIED SECRETS, which went to extremes even for me.

 

But this week, as Wikipedia celebrates its 10th anniversary, I want to spend a little time talking about methods, and why the old ways are sometimes best.

There’s no question that the Internet has revolutionized research. It’s the writer’s best friend, especially if you’re writing historical fiction, or setting scenes in places you know you’ll never go. The treasures of the world are now digitally archived, and Google Earth gives you an uncanny level of detail about almost any street corner your characters might visit.

But I still do a lot of my research the old-fashioned way, and I encourage other writers — particularly beginning writers — to do the same. Your first-grade teacher was right: if you want to know something, the best way to find out is to ask. 

The acknowledgment pages in my books tell the story. The acknowledgments for VANISHED ran more than three pages, and the thanks for BURIED SECRETS may run even longer. I get all my best information from experts in the field, whether it’s air freight or furniture construction or the art of the comic book (sorry, graphic novel). Over the years, cold-calling or cold-emailing sources has gotten me not only crucial information, but story ideas and lasting friendships. It’s probably easier now that I can show sources books I’ve written, but this was something I started to do at the very beginning of my career, and any aspiring author can do it, too. You just need to follow a few basic guidelines.

First, know what you need to know. Before you call or email anyone, have a clear idea of the information you’re looking for. Maybe you need to know the standard equipment in an ambulance; maybe it’s the width of a semi-truck tire, or the rules for transporting explosives across state lines, or courtroom procedure for juvenile offenders. Do as much background research as you can ahead of time, and identify the gaps in your knowledge before you approach a source. Write down your questions beforehand, with follow-up questions in mind if necessary.

Second, be willing to admit what you don’t know, and pay attention to all the information you get, even if it’s more than you’ve asked for. As much background research as I do, sometimes I discover I’ve only got one side of the story, or the book learning doesn’t match up with my source’s firsthand experience. Some of the best information I’ve ever gotten — and more than one story idea — has come from my source saying, “Yeah, but the question you want to ask is . . .” Let your sources tell you what they know, even if it’s not exactly what you need. You never know what might come in handy.

If you can, meet your background sources in person. If what you want is background information, phone is better than email and face-to-face meetings are better than the phone. Real conversations lend themselves to open-ended questions and storytelling, which is where I get some of my best background material. People love to talk about what they do, and are flattered when someone really makes the effort to understand their jobs.

The TV show “Castle” is every writer’s fantasy: he’s cool, he’s debonair (aren’t we all?), and he rides around with a NYPD homicide detective. That’s going to extremes – it’s a TV show, after all — but you might be surprised by how willing law enforcement organizations are to work with writers. Most big-city police departments have public information officers who are willing to field queries, and many even have citizen training programs that offer the opportunity to learn police procedures. Involved citizens are the police force’s most valuable resource, and chances are good that your local police will be happy to answer your questions and help you get involved.

Law enforcement officials aren’t your only potential sources, though. For the thriller writer, sources are everywhere. Your bank teller, your insurance agent, the bartender, the postal clerk: once you start talking to people, you realize that everyone is the hero of his or her own story, and has interesting things to tell you. You just have to figure out what to ask.

Figuring out what to ask is your job as a writer. The guidelines above all boil down into one last rule for interviewing sources, which is to respect their time, and remember that they have jobs of their own. Talking to a writer may be a nice change of pace in their day, but it’s not usually what they’re paid to do. If they’re talking to you on their own time, respect that and appreciate it. Buy them a cup of coffee or a meal, if they’re allowed to accept it, and remember to thank them in your acknowledgments.

I should double-check the thanks for BURIED SECRETS, while I’m thinking about it.