Research: Beyond the Internet

The plot of my next novel hinges on a fight between the hero and heroine on a complicated battleground. Not as complicated as brain surgery or rocket science, but complicated enough that I was pretty sure I couldn’t learn everything I needed to know from the Interwebz.

The realization struck fear in my heart, which is pretty silly, because in my pre-romance life, I was a freelance journalist. I did research. Once, I spent two days shadowing a nurse midwife who does home births. I got up at 2 a.m., flew cross-country to Vancouver (not a non-stop—agonizing) and was on the ground by 12:30 p.m. Pacific time. I was so exhausted and wound up that my first act upon arriving at the midwife’s house was trip over my own flowy pants and sprawl on the floor of her living room. I picked myself up and somehow managed to string together semi-coherent questions for the rest of the afternoon. The next day, I sat with her while she saw patients (none of them, for better or for worse, in the process of giving birth—although shortly after that, my neighbor gave birth on her kitchen floor, unintentionally, and I was the first one on the scene, and the only other person there besides mom and baby for more than half an hour, which more than makes up for not seeing a home birth with the midwife).

I’ve also shadowed a U.S. Senator and a high-up health-care advisor to President Obama, so you’d think nothing would intimidate me, but I think there’s just something inherently intimidating about having to ask someone you don’t know for help. Any kind of help. So I spent a long time stuck on the first step of Doing Research: Procrastinate.

There are some good reasons to procrastinate, actually. When you do research, it’s important to know everything you can possibly learn on your own before you start asking experts questions. It’s important to have well-formed, well-thought-through questions. And it’s good to be far enough along in your own book-plotting process that you’ve gone absolutely as far as you can go before the questions overwhelm your ability to continue.

But you will reach a point where you know you need to ask questions and you are still procrastinating, and then it is time to tap your network. It’s startling how many people you can reach this way. Suppose you are trying to find a motorcycle mechanic to talk to. Make your Facebook status: Anyone know a motorcycle mechanic?

And—as I discovered yesterday to my great joy, for God’s sake DO NOT FORGET LINKEDIN! I went on my LinkedIn account and typed a two-word search string (the equivalent of “motorcycle mechanic”), and up popped a list of people. Not all of them were my own contacts, but most of them knew someone I knew. When I looked more closely, the best contact turned out to know someone I knew because we had all graduated from the same college, which meant all I had to do was look up her contact info on my alumni directory.

Which brings me to another important networking note: Your alumni office or career counseling office may be a goldmine of contact information. Depending on how the alumni database or directory is organized and how easy it is to get access to it, you may be able to search on people by career. And depending on how close-knit your alma mater is, people are generally pretty good about helping out fellow graduates.

If you strike out on all your networking options, you can also try out a service called Help a Reporter Out (www.helpareporter.com). You sign up at the site and can post queries that are answered, usually, by PR people trolling for ways to get stories out to the media. Non-PR people also check the list and offer to help. Be up front about the fact that you’re writing fiction, not non-fiction. It might reduce your hits, but if what you’re writing about strikes a chord with someone, you’ll get a response.

The next step, if you’ve exhausted all those paths (and emailed everyone you know just on the off-chance they might happen to know someone), is to search directly for a total stranger who’s an expert in the field. You’ll probably have more luck with local sources—people living and working in your town or city—but there are many other ways to make connections, and Google is your friend. It’s more difficult to make connections with people you don’t know, but you’d be surprised by how many people will help.

I was surprised yesterday. I emailed a guy who does media relations for a company—a big, busy company that might be a lot like the one my hero works for. I truly wasn’t expecting to hear anything back from him. Less than an hour later, he wrote to say he had no time to help me, but he supplied me with another name and two projects to read about online. Assume you’ll get about a one-in-ten hit rate on cold contacts, just as in sales or manuscript subbing, and spread your net wide. People like the idea of helping a writer, and they like the idea of being in on the brainstorming part of a book. Tell them your story and get them excited about it.

Sometimes associations are a great way to get information, depending on how big they are and whether they have full time staff. This definitely applies to historical research—I have a friend who plans to tap the Newport Historical Society for her book set in turn-of-the-century Newport, R.I.—but it also applies to other kinds of research. Trade organizations want to promote their members, so if you reach the right person—often a PR or marketing person—you can sometimes get them to answer questions for you.

Before you reach out, think about what you want. Do you want to ask questions? Do you need help brainstorming scenarios? Or would you like to visit something or shadow someone? Sometimes it’s a good idea to smart small, build a relationship, and then ask for bigger favors. Sometimes it’s best to lay everything on the table up front. You have to let your gut lead you in this, and—I can safely say as a journalist who has had stories slip away—there’s a little bit of trial and error involved.

But when you get it right, when you make a connection with someone and succeed, in the process, in connecting with your subject matter and your characters, it’s one of the most satisfying experiences you can have.