5

Whatever subject I am researching for my story, the common recommendation is "talk to the relevant professionals". If I need medical information, talk to a doctor. If I need information about the military, talk to soldiers. Talk to scholars, talk to museum curators, talk to designers, dancers, security personnel. Best of all - ask to shadow them at their work.

For an established writer, that's all very fine. One can email the person one wishes to interview/shadow, and introduce oneself as "I am author of published works X,Y,Z, here's my website, here are my books on Amazon, I am now doing research for my next novel."

But what does a first-time author do? "Dear Sir/Madam, I am a nobody with aspirations of writerhood. I would very much like to ask you really weird questions / follow you around and get in your way." That's not going to work, is it? In particular, not every person who "works on their first novel" finishes it, and not every first novel gets published. So from the expert's point of view, there's a high chance the information they provide to an aspiring writer will not in fact lead to a book. That's assuming they even trust the "I'm an aspiring writer" story - security personnel, soldiers, etc. might not.

So how does someone who is working on their first novel, and thus has no credentials, go about asking experts for information?

(This question is related, but does not focus on the problem of the first-time author.)

  • 2
    Find out what bars they hang out in, and ply them with liquor. – wetcircuit Feb 27 at 0:20
  • There is at least one website on which individuals list their expertise in order to facilitate this sort of research. If you need the link LMK. – DPT Feb 27 at 0:30
  • Easy, post your questions here. – Chenmunka Feb 27 at 9:50
  • 1
    As a guide to what sort of information you should try to find, Brandon Sanderson likes to say (on Writing Excuses) that the easiest way to look knowledgeable is to get the negatives correct. Find out what construction workers/color-blind people/neurologists complain about when they're with each other. It'll at least seem somewhat realistic. (This is the low-bar approach for when you can't get anything more detailed). – icanfathom Feb 28 at 17:34
  • 1
    @DPT not sure about the TS, but I'd like that link very much. – Alissa Mar 1 at 3:01
11

I've got nothing on shadowing (I suspect that's a very hard sell), but for asking questions, there are two (non-exclusive) approaches that I've seen and occasionally been part of (on both sides).

The first is to start with your own circle of friends. I'm not a radiologist, lawyer, chef, schoolteacher, psychologist, soldier, horticulturist, priest, or a bunch of other things, but I have friends and acquaintances who are. Because I have social connections with them already (some stronger, some weaker), I can ask them occasional questions for reasons ranging from writing projects to personal projects to curiosity. Naturally, I should be just as willing to answer their questions about my areas of specialization. (Even if it means fixing their computers sometimes.) You probably have friends beyond your immediate circle of people you spend lots of time with -- think about your classmates, coworkers, congregation, Warcraft guild, Stack Exchange community, Google+ circle (oh, oops), etc. You know more people than you might realize, and some of them would be happy to talk with you.

The second is more conventional networking, where you don't know somebody with the right expertise but you know somebody who does and introductions are made. Finding some path to the expert you want to talk with works better than cold-calling. A "middleman" who knows both you and the expert can present your request, make sure the expert thinks it's reasonable, confirm that the expert has time and willingness, and then make the introduction if all that goes well. The expert never has to say "no" to you directly, and often your contact (the "middleman") won't have even told you who it is. This indirection is social-professional lubricant so nobody has to feel awkward. In this kind of networking, you ask someone who you think is likely to have the right type of connection to help you identify someone and make an introduction. For example, I would ask my radiologist friend to help me find a friendly brain surgeon; I wouldn't pick out a likely brain surgeon and go looking for someone who can introduce me. What do I know about brain surgeons, after all? My radiologist friend probably works with some and can steer me toward the friendly one or the one with spare time or the one who happens to share my interest in renaissance music.

That's all about connecting with someone. The other part is quid pro quo.

If you ask a friend for help then you can trade some other favor in return or just draw on "friendship capital". When you're instead networking your way to an expert, that doesn't help -- you probably don't have anything the expert needs and you're probably not going to be part of the same social circle where natural give and take applies. Instead, do something for the expert in proportion to the time and attention you're requesting. A common offer, from what I understand, is a nice meal during which you will ask and get answers to your questions. If you think you need more than a dinner's worth of time, I recommend choosing your most important questions, covering those in a dinner, and then asking if the person would be willing to meet again. Do be aware that in some professions, the person could be billing paying clients by the hour for similar kinds of advice -- stay well on the "information" side of the line and well away from anything that smells like seeking professional advice.

You might find that the expert is interested in your project, or enjoyed chatting with you and might want to socialize more, or believes strongly in mentoring and giving back and so is naturally inclined to help people in your situation. If any of that happens, great -- but don't expect it, and if the person gives the impression of wanting to limit the interaction to dinner and maybe a couple rounds of followup email, be gracious in accepting that. Depending on the scale of what you need, you might need to consult more than one person over time.

Finally, use your time with the expert respectfully. Do some research on your own before you ask for the meeting. Doing some research will help you ask better questions (and avoid the 101 stuff). Sharing your initial research establishes a baseline and demonstrates your investment in the project. You might not understand everything that the Wikipedia article on brain surgery says, but try to get the basic concepts yourself before your dinner with the surgeon.

(Humility works well here; just because you read it on Wikipedia doesn't mean you correctly understood it or even that it was right. Don't assume you know stuff; demonstrate that you've tried and show what you've gotten on your own.)

Where applicable, ask for pointers to information instead of information dumps -- two minutes spent on "where could I find an accessible description of X?" and an answer leaves more time for questions that can't be answered that way.

Understand your problem well enough to avoid asking for lots of irrelevant information. For example, do you need to know the details of how a certain brain surgery is conducted, or does your plot really revolve more around risks, time, and after-care? Know why you're asking the questions you're asking.

  • 1
    One more thing; if you study first, even if that studying means that meal with the professional, and feel that you need more, you are able to ask better questions. At that point, even if you do have to pay for their time, you'll be able to ask questions that sooner get to the core of what you need to know, effectively getting you a better signal to noise ratio in the answers. I know I like to get a general overview of a subject before trying to ask specific questions, and that doing so generally nets me asking better questions than I otherwise would have. – a CVn Feb 27 at 13:21
7

I don't buy any of the "ask an expert" notions either; although here on StackExchange you may find some experts in certain fields, I've been impressed with a few here on Writing, and others on WorldBuilding, in Politics, Law, Astronomy, Finance, etc. This is a friendly forum for asking naive questions (if you do a light search for duplicates first).

The only other resource I can offer (from experience) is that professors in universities have public email addresses, and I know some don't mind answering an outside question about their field, if it isn't brain-dead. Something like,

Hi Professor Amadeus, I am not a student, but I am doing research on X for a project I am working on. I know A and B, but I'm not clear on how that gets to C. Can you point me at something that explains that relationship? I'd appreciate any help you can offer.

That leaves room for them to answer directly, or to send you a note on what to look up. Some won't answer at all, I would not send them a 2nd inquiry. But most teaching professors in my experience are reasonably friendly; the cliché of a curt and dismissive professor is real but very much a minority.

If they are teaching they also have regularly scheduled office hours (for student questions), and if they are interested in your question or exchange, may let you visit their office during office hours. At various times in the semester, between tests, the number of students coming during office hours is zero. Professors often work on their own research then, or other housekeeping (answering emails!), but it is hard to get into concentration if you might be interrupted by students at any moment. If you choose this route, educate yourself and arrive smart enough with questions to answer, don't expect the professor to have prepared anything to talk about. They are doing you a favor by listening, don't sit down and say "educate me."

Also understand that if you visit and a student shows up, the only appropriate response from you is to rise and say "I can wait outside." Some meetings with students need to be behind closed doors; they may be reporting abuse, harassment or private personal matters (e.g. a death in the family, a surgery that conflicts with the final, etc).

Besides that, for some public-service professions, you may get a tour of a facility (fire station, police station) where you could ask questions.

I have found the modern age with search engines extremely valuable in my research, becoming an expert at the search has helped me enormously. I don't find it that hard to read (or skim) the non-fiction sites, like the law, or PubMed. There are sites like avvo.com with tons of free legal advice from lawyers, that take specific questions.

You might search for blogs of experts that write opinions about their field and may answer questions, or some of their readers are experts that will answer a question.

  • Your suggestion about e-mailing reminds me of Are authors of papers okay with receiving questions from people in industry? on Academia, which may also be of interest to those thinking about taking an approach like that. – a CVn Feb 27 at 13:26
  • @aCVn The accepted answer and other answers suggest it is okay. As I warned, if the professor doesn't respond, don't follow up or pester them. We get all kinds of email, a polite inquiry they don't want to answer will be deleted and forgotten. I don't regard it as an imposition; especially for professors being paid in public universities by taxpayer dollars. Any public employee that resents even being asked a question by the public is a lot too self-centered and self-important for my taste. – Amadeus Feb 27 at 14:25
  • Oh yes -- I had meant to include a section in my answer about asking for pointers vs. asking for info dumps, and lost it in the editing. – Monica Cellio Feb 27 at 15:22
4

Easy Mode

A very reclusive-approachable option would be to post/lurk on forums where those types of people gather. You can see their opinions and range of personalities pretty easily across a wide range of subjects. If you join in, you join in at the level you want and perhaps can approach a few personalities that interest you via pm and get the answers that aren't clear. That might then morph into the type of conversation you want to have.

It's still another form of networking, but it is the easiest one today. Like e-dating for writers. Just because it's easy, does not mean it's without value. Starting in an easy place is usually the best when you don't know what you don't know.

Hand Selling Yourself

That said, if you don't have credentials you don't mention them. You say something along the lines: "Hi I'm [Joe], and I'm writing a book about a [firefighter]. Would you be willing to help me understand what its like to be a [firefighter]?"

If they say yes, great; measure their engagement. Maybe it's a "Sure, kid, but I'm busy." In which case, limit your questions. Or maybe they are skittish, in which case you may have to spend more time being friendly. Or maybe they just open up. You can't really know without asking. But one of the universal truths about people is that they won't stop talking once you get them talking about themselves. So if you find an outgoing [firefighter] then, chances are you don't need to do much prodding to get them to talk.

Your credentials aren't the important thing. You are an opportunity for them to share their world view. They will naturally feel the urge to share their story if you do it right. Or, they'll tell you to go away. But you try enough and you'll find the right person.

Shadowing is the hardest of sells. You don't start with it. If the person works in a place where their relationship with the public can be combative, the cold open "Hey can I shadow?" won't work. Doctors, for instance have to follow Hippa. CIA agents have to kill you if they tell you anything. People who run museums don't want to be catfished into compromising security for thieves. But there are other professions where that may be more of a possibility.

I would not shoot for shadowing first. I would shoot for the interview, possibly over a beer.

2

You'd be surprised just how much access you can get by inserting the phrase "I'm writing a book and wanted to know..." and the sources that are really friendly may shock you. The police are all but too helpful to anyone requesting procedures or situational handling. So if you want to know what the procedure for handling a bank robbery is, they will likely tell you anyway (especially since, as depicted in the Order part of Law and Order, the police's job entails explaining in detail their procedures in such a way that 12 people who weren't smart enough to get out of Jury Duty can understand it) and in the United States, Ride Alongs with cops are encouraged.

However, if you call the Bank or the Company that makes the alarms for the Banks, they may be a little hesitant to tell you these things. This is for two reasons: because they don't want competators to know their products mechanisms... and they don't want thieves to know either. Cops on the other hand have to explain as part of their job, and explaining the methods do help discourage the bad guys.

Even then, don't do one over the other, but rather both. A timid bank manager might not ask a question, a cop will likely tell you enough details to fill in the gaps. In organizations that deal with classified information, this is called Aggregate Classification. Essentially in a document, no one piece of information is classified... but all the information together can raise a document to the highest possible classification levels. Tom Clancy was suspected of talking to someone who leaked classified documents on Submarine Specs to him that he then published in "Hunt for the Red October" but never found any. What they did find is that Clancy had talked to a lot of submariners and gleaned information from them and did a little guess work on the small gaps that all together prompted an investigation into a possible leak in the Navy (You don't want a leak anywhere in the military, but especially not in the Navy... and defiantly not in the Navy's subs).

  • "Loose lips sink ships", they say. With submarines, is that a good thing or a bad thing? :-) – a CVn Feb 27 at 18:10
  • All the answers are good. When I was a new writer (1970s), often writing on speculation, I found that the people I asked for information were usually helpful and friendly. Be polite and don't ask for the moon and I think you'll generally get help. – Literalman Feb 27 at 18:16
  • @a CVn: As the Bubble Heads say: "A submarine is a type of boat where the number sinkings equals the number of re-surfacings... usually...". Also, in the US Navy which gives us "Lose Lips" Submarines are not Ships... they're Boats... can't tell you why, but they aren't covered by the Loose Lips mantra. – hszmv Feb 28 at 15:35
  • @Literalman: But if they give you the moon, take the moon and run. – hszmv Feb 28 at 15:38
2

Guilty. I'm one of the people who told you to do seemingly impossible things.

The truth is, sometimes you can't. Shadowing someone at their job or activity is often really really hard, and nobody likes asking for that. But most people are happy to have a visitor. For example, in your military question I was clear that you couldn't just go to a foreign base and ask to hang out observing everything for a day, but you could visit someone who lived on a base and at least see how day to day life was set up, which was the focus of your question. Making friends who would let you visit them is another issue, but possible in the days of the internet. Assuming you were able to go to the foreign country in the first place.

The expert is not always who you think it is.

The obvious expert in military life is a soldier living the military life. But soldiers are a small portion of the people who know what it's like. There are lots of staff people on a base, some military, some not. Military spouses are a fantastic source of information. And kids (including grown kids) who have lived on base will know a lot about it as well.

Finding an active-duty soldier in a foreign country to talk to you about life in the military is very hard, unless you get lucky with your networking. Finding a vet or a spouse or a kid who grew up that way or someone who worked there, not so hard. And it's easier to get them to talk to you because they're not in possession of potential military secrets so they won't be wary of your motivation.

If you start off with written or filmed materials, your questions will be a lot more focused and that will also increase the chances that someone will allow you to interview them. Honestly, I wouldn't want to indulge someone who came to me with "I need to know about X and I know you had Y affiliation with X. Tell me everything about it." But if someone instead said "I've read X and Y and follow Z's blog but I still have some questions about A, would you be willing to let me buy you a coffee and ask you some questions?" (or Skype or phone or internet chat) I'd be likely to say yes. Chances are strong your conversation would include topics you didn't mention, so it wouldn't have to be that narrow.

Being a first-time writer isn't as big a deal as you think it is. "I'm writing a book about X" doesn't require a CV. It's just your reason for asking, and one that often puts people at ease.

Networking is the obvious answer because it's the correct one. Again, the internet helps. You can put out requests on your Facebook feed (or wherever you do social media, if you do) and you might be shocked by the information that some people know or that people close to them know.

Once you find someone, approach them with confidence and respect for their time. Not everyone will want to take the time, and that's okay. Maybe they'll steer you to someone who can do it. Your desire to learn from them is legitimate and that alone will motivate people to feel they're getting something out of talking to you.

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