For more on researching for fiction, go to the main research page.
A lot of great writers started out as journalists, and critics have offered a lot of reasons for that shared background. Journalists know how to work under deadline, they have an instinct for finding a story, they’ve learned how to find an angle or a hook to draw a reader in, they have developed a sense of concision and compression in language. But I think there is at least one reason that critics tend to overlook: Journalists know how to interview people.
I’ve been writing so far about how to conduct research for fiction, but up till now that research has been primarily textual — books, articles, websites. However, sometimes research in books or online isn’t enough. There are some things you can’t learn by reading, but Hemingway’s or Annie Proulx’s examples aside, there are also a lot of things you can’t learn by living through or traveling to, either. For some things, you have to go to the source, you have to talk to other people who have lived through it, who did travel there — you have to talk to people who know.
This is a hard thing for many introverted writers to do. We’re much happier holed up at our desks with our desk lamp, our music, and our cat for company. We’re writers, we tell ourselves, because we don’t like to talk. So actually tracking down people and meeting them is at best a chore — at worst, terrifying. But hey, you’ve managed to get out and meet a librarian by now, right? (Right?) So you can do this too. Talking to people isn’t really much different from the kind of research you’ve probably been doing, except instead of asking questions in a search engine or a database or a catalogue, you’re asking a human being. And sometimes, this is the only way it can work.
The simplest thing to do is start with people you already know. For example: I’m currently working on a story in which one of the characters is a Mexican-American who understands English fine but does not speak English. I can write the character without any problems, because I grew up in the Texas Hill Country, in a small town with a significant, proud Hispanic population. My perspective remains irrefutably white, of course, but this isn’t really a problem in the story—most of what we see of this guy is through a white perspective. But he needs to speak, and I need his speech to be authentic. Yet no matter how many Hispanic friends I hung out with at lunch or on weekends, and no matter how many Hispanic coworkers I worked with (this character is in fact based loosely on a guy I used to mow lawns with), my Spanish is limited, academic, and frankly, terrible. I’ve used the language in stories before, but it’s an issue I always wrestle with. I can (and have) used dictionaries and online translators to temporarily write the dialogue I’ve used, but we all know this is inauthentic — no one speaks their own language the way it’s written in textbooks or constructed by translators. So, for my Mexican-American character’s voice to ring true, I turned to some of my Spanish-speaking friends from back in high school, because they can help me with the spoken rhythms of the language, the idioms and the slang. (This is an on-going project, by the way, so if any of my friends want to volunteer as translators, I’d love to hear from you!)
More recently, I learned a wealth of invaluable information while working on that Civil War novel I keep mentioning. One of the characters in that book has the bizarre habit of skinning wolves and wearing their pelts as clothes — he even wears a real wolf’s face as a mask. But I’ve never been a hunter and I’m now a vegetarian, not to mention that many wolf populations are protected today, so this not only was something I was unfamiliar with, it is something I’ll never have a chance to try for myself. I tried reading some guides online but the specific information I was looking for was difficult to find, and besides, the skinning and preparation of these pelts is, for my character, an intensely personal process, so I needed some kind of inside information. I put out the call online, and several friends came through for me immediately, including my friend Amy Smith Hicks, who is a self-described “country girl” and regularly helps dress and butcher deer during the annual hunting seasons; better still, members of her family are in the taxidermy business, so she had some insights there as well. Amy not only was able to explain the mechanics of the process better than the manuals I was reading, but she also described the sounds and smells of the skinning process, how the skin feels as you strip it from the carcass, and some personal tips for an easier job. These are details I would never have gotten from reading a book or even watching a video.
If you’re lucky, you can do the same with other complicated professional information as well. Despite the stereotypes, most writers are not insular homebodies who hang out only with other writers, if with anyone. You probably have friends or acquaintances in a wide breadth of fields, from grocery store clerks to construction workers to computer support technicians to police officers to accountants to college professors. You also conduct a lot of business with people in various professions. When you get your cable installed, talk to the person hooking up your tv. When you go to the doctor for a check-up, ask questions about your characters’ fictional conditions.
Sometimes, though, you’ll simply need to dive in and play reporter, to call up a professional or an organization and start asking questions. Say you’re writing a crime thriller but you’ve never lived in a dangerous neighborhood, you don’t know any cops, you’ve never even seen a firearm up close. Call up your police department and request a ride-along. (You can usually do the same for your local fire department and sometimes the paramedics as well.) Or let’s say you’re writing about an employee at an animal shelter. Call up your local humane society and ask about volunteering; while you’re there, talk to other volunteers, talk to the vets.
Some professions or people are going to be trickier than others, of course. I don’t recommend diving into dangerous situations without a LOT of preparation and help from other professionals, and even then, I would never condone any writer participating in dangerous or illegal activities just to write a story. When in doubt, go back to the old rule of writing what you know. But you should embrace a certain sense of adventure and talk to interesting people; your readers want to read about those people. Talk to professionals in the fields your characters work in; your readers they want to know that you know what you’re talking about, or at least that Val, your lawn-mowing main character, knows his way around a commercial-grade Walker mower.
When I was hospitalized in 1999 with a bleeding ulcer, the doctors explained to me how they would insert a gastrointestinal scope down my throat and take a look around inside me to find the ulcer, and then they’d use the laser attached to the scope to suture the ulcer shut. I was going to be unconscious for all this, they assured me, and then I asked what struck them as a strange question: Would they be recording the scope? Sure, they explained, they would keep a video record of the procedure for reference later. I said, “Will I be able to see this video?” They reminded me I would be under anesthesia, but I clarified that I wanted access to the video after the procedure. “I just want to see what it looks like,” I said. I had no plans for the information — at the time, I’d lost a couple pints of blood and was lying weak and woozy on a gurney, already in the surgery room where they were preparing the scope, so I wasn’t thinking about fiction at all. But I knew I needed to see that video, and indeed, a few weeks afterward, I returned to the hospital and asked to see my file. I watched the video and asked a lot of questions about what some of the images meant, what they’d done during the procedure, what the instruments did and how they worked. And then I forgot it. It became just another piece of information I knew, trivial and quirky but not of much immediate use. But sure enough, more than four years later I had an idea for a story that involved a scope down the esophagus, and I remembered that video; my story “Horror Vacuui,” about a sword-swallower with a dangerous case of intestinal blockage, would not be the same if I hadn’t seen first-hand what the inside of my own bloody intestines looked like. These details matter, and sometimes the best way to get them is from the source itself.
That’s why, tomorrow, I’m going to offer some specific advice based on a story about a doctor and how you, too, can “shoot the bullet.”
Relief efforts in Haiti are going slowly and the situation is dangerously precarious, but a lot of supplies have already arrived on the island and volunteers are working hard to help the Haitian people. The harder they work and the more they give, the more they’re going to need your donations! Please see my list of charity and action organizations, and as usual, if you know of more I need to list, please let me know.