When all else fails…let your fingers do the walking. Sally Bayless joins us today to share her latest method of research. The phone. Welcome back, Sally!
I didn’t ask for the story I’m writing. Mostly, it was just there, like a secret book that only I could read, waiting in my head until I got the draft down on paper. And although once I got started, I tried to plan it somewhat, my brain was pretty much using all its power to contemplate character arc and the three-act structure. It didn’t have energy left for dealing with reality. A heroine who’s a head chef and works 8 a.m.- 4 p.m.? Not to worry. It’s not like restaurants need anyone to cook the evening meal, right?
Some of these, uh, little flaws were apparent when I read through my draft. Solutions were obvious. (Heroine can’t be head chef.) But in other areas, answers weren’t so easy. I began to wonder why I’d written the draft before thoroughly researching all possible topics that my characters might happen upon. No problem, I told myself. I can find anything in books and on the Internet, right?
Wrong. It became apparent that I would have to talk to real people. Ugh. There is a reason, after all, that long ago I migrated out of reporting and into copy editing and public relations. I’m not actually shy, more risk-averse and non-confrontational. Copy editors don’t interview anyone. In PR, when I interviewed people, they were thrilled. What doctor wouldn’t want an article written about how great he is?
This, however, was different. I needed to call people and ask them questions so I could portray things accurately in my work of fiction. I imagined them saying, “Oh, are you published?” and me answering, “Weeell, no.” Ah, the lucky folk who write historicals. No one to interview because they’re all dead. I’d much rather look things up in a research library than talk to real people. (Librarians don’t count. They are, in my experience, universally nice, non-threatening people.)
Finally, I dug down into my box of journalism tools. I did as much research beforehand as possible online. I wrote out my questions. I arranged them in order of easiest to hardest. (As long as you keep the interview short, I think you get better answers this way. People talk more after they’re warmed up.) I came up with an estimate of how long the interview would take. I practiced my questions out loud whenever I was driving alone in my trusty minivan. At long last, I dusted off my courage. At the top of my paper I wrote “Remember to ask if you can call back with additional questions.” I thought polite, professional thoughts. And I dialed.
I’m not going to tell you I’m eager to do this again. It will never be my favorite part of writing. But I did find that even when they didn’t have the threat of “no comment” in a news story or the lure of free publicity from a PR piece, people talked to me. Fairly easily.
The interviewee, in my experience, comes in six varieties.
1. Friends, relatives, and friends of friends. These are easy, as you’d expect.
2. PR people. Helpful, professional, easy to interview. And more plentiful than you might imagine.
3. People who like to talk about themselves. One man actually said “Oh, it’s over already?” in a disappointed voice when I started to thank him at the end. (As someone who is blogging about herself, I should not dwell on this point.)
4. The too busy/too important. I know these are out there, but I haven’t encountered any so far in my fiction research. Even when I was a reporter, they weren’t that common. Category 3 really is a lot bigger than you’d think.
5. The selfish. I did meet one of these. That specialized knowledge was his, darn it, and sharing was not in the game plan. Not a problem. I asked someone else.
6. The just plain nice. Yep, they’re out there. You can even find them with a cold call sometimes.
Overall, research with real people was less painful than I’d expected. There’s even a slight chance that I built it up in my mind beforehand as worse that it really was.
And one thing struck me. Throughout my interviews, I kept finding evidence for what I’m calling the Bayless Theory of Vicarious Creativity. (If someone else has already named it, please don’t tell me. This is my only claim to fame. It’s not like I’ve got a math theory named after me.) Anyway, here it is: Everyone, I believe, has some dream or creative idea that they’d like to pursue. When you tell them about your book and ask for their help in some small part, they get excited. Maybe they can’t sail around the world or open their own cupcake bakery today, but if they help you and see you happily moving toward your goal, it gives them hope that one day they can too.
So by calling these people, I was doing them a favor. And to think I was dreading it.
Have you ever called a complete stranger in order to research your story? Share your experience with us as well as your most tried-and-true research methods.
On Friday, June 3rd, Diane Holmes from Pitch University gives us tips on pitching at Nationals and L.A. based stylist, Ashley Hammen, talks fashion and how to look your best for the conference.
Bio: Sally Bayless is learning to write inspirational romantic suspense and cozy mysteries. Before realizing that ordinary people were allowed to write fiction, she edited corporate publications and technical reports. In January 2010, she was a finalist in the first contest she entered, SVRWA’s Gotcha. A member of ACFW, RWA, MWA, and several online groups, Sally lives in rural Ohio with her husband and two children.
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