Thursday, March 8, 2012

Writing Tip Thursday---Using Experts

Since I write suspense books about terrorists, spies, law enforcement agencies and the people who love them, I have to do research. (Of course if I was a terrorist or secret agent or someone who loved them, I'd probably say that just to throw you off my trail.) But let's just say for argument's sake that I'm just a regular writer person and I have to do research. It's nice to have some real people who can help you make the plot and your characters more, well, realistic.

I have met people who have helped me enormously with my work in various ways. I met a fairly high profile prosecutor on a discussion board I frequented. I met a man who formerly worked with the CIA at parent/teacher conference and I have a detective in my neighborhood. Several of my books are related to the military and I had access to a unit that was serving in Iraq through a friend of mine. This unit spent countless hours answering my questions after they'd come back from finding and defusing IEDs all day. I can't even begin to tell you how helpful all of these people have been in making my books as realistic as possible. But not only that, they've changed my life and outlook on the world with the way they view themselves and their jobs.

But how do you meet experts who are willing to help?

1. Be able to talk about your book. Once people find out I'm an author they automatically ask what my books are about. I have my standard ten second answer (international romantic suspense, you know, terrorists, spies, and a little romance thrown in.) I also have my thirty second response to go a little deeper. That's when people have said, "oh, I'm a detective let me know if you need any help." Or, "I've prosecuted terrorists before, I'd love to tell you about it," things like that. All because I was willing to tell them I was a writer.

2. Be willing to make cold calls. There have been times where I've called a doctor or a lawyer just to ask a research question. Some are more willing to help than others, but be specific in what you need and don't waste their time. I always thank them in the acknowledgements of my book as well.

3. Make sure you follow up on leads. I can't tell you how many times I've heard things like, oh my sister went to Indonesia, she'd probably love to tell you about her trip since your book is set there. I don't know the sister, but am I going to follow up? You bet. And connections like that can lead to other connections as well. Don't be afraid to say, I would LOVE your sister's number and then call her.

Of course in fiction you are expected to suspend reality a bit---that's why it's called fiction. But you have to have that kernel of realism in there or you will lose your reader. So don't lose, but use---connections and experts that is. You won't be sorry when your book is on the shelf and you know it's one of your very best efforts because of the perspective you gained in writing it and the people who helped you make it that way.


Janice Sperry said...

I like
I haven't used any of their stuff but at least I know it's available if I should ever need to know what circumstances would cause a body to mummify rather than rot. (And really, who hasn't wondered that?)

Jordan McCollum said...

Groan. I'm about to share the secret sauce.

I belong to an email list for writers that has people who've worked in all aspects of law enforcement and investigation. People ask questions and they get real answers. (The author behind the blog Janice lists is on there.)

It's on Yahoo Groups, and it's called Crime Scene Writer.

It's not the only place, of course. I read non fiction from time to time, but I do a TON of research on the Internet. (Some of my faves: I can pick locks and build bombs. But IRL I've only done one of those. You can pick which. ;)

Just a couple weeks ago, I called a former FBI agent to ask a bunch of questions for a novel I was revising. I once emailed the Office of Public Archaeology at a local university to find out if they would have more volunteer opportunities soon. (Haven't heard back, but I've got time on that project.) One of my beta readers has a degree in criminal justice and psychology, is a cop's kid, and is married to a federal LEO. My dad is pretty much an expert in everything (according to him), and did study martial arts a very long time. My brother-in-law is a cop. I run things by them all the time.

But for the most part, I'm very shy about these things. I don't even like to bug my BIL much (my dad and my beta reader, though, I talk to them for anything).

Debra Erfert said...

I don't have to go very far to get my expert advice. My husband majored in Criminal Justice and is a retired city police lieutenant, (26 years) who also was an FBI Special Agent for a while, who now works for the city fire department as their Emergency Management Specialist. His oldest brother is retired from the Arizona State Crime lab and is an expert in forensic identification. HIs other brother is a retired firefighter/arson investigator with our fire department. My son was a medic with the military base. I've used all four of these men shamelessly for several of my novels.

If I need to ask someone about something specific, say, about England--I know I wouldn't hesitate to ask. I do get very brazen when it comes to technical information for my writing.

@ Jordan, I'm bookmarking that Crime Scene Writers, anyway! teehee...

Sarah Pearson said...

This post is perfect timing! The project I'm revising is a crime thriller I wrote for NaNo last year. It's my first and only crime thriller and is full of lines that say 'must check this' :-)

Just to add to the fun, it's set in America - I'll be bugging my overseas blogging pals for authenticity :-)