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.