Posted On June 1, 2011 by Print This Post

When Internet Research Fails—Talking to Real People

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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40 Responses to “When Internet Research Fails—Talking to Real People”

  1. Hi Sally,

    It’s so nice to have you back at RU! I’ve never had to call anyone out of the blue, but I have emailed experts. I remember going through all the same emotions you mentioned above. One of the things I found most challenging was coming up with intelligent questions on something I knew virtually nothing about. LOL


    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | June 1, 2011, 4:30 am
  2. Hi Sally. I always love your posts. I have had to call strangers for research. For the book I’m editing now I needed some information on putting out a car fire so I called our local fire department. You’re right that people like to talk about what they do. I think most people enjoy sharing their knowledge.

    One thing I’ve just (literally) learned the hard way is to make sure you get all their contact information in case the book doesn’t get published for awhile. I’m working on my acknowledgements page for a book I wrote six years ago and realized I didn’t have one person’s last name! Luckily, the email address I had for him still worked.

    Posted by AdrienneGiordano | June 1, 2011, 6:02 am
  3. Morning Sally!!

    You should have…I’ve been in the restaurant business over 20 years! =)

    I haven’t called, but I did post once on a forum. It turned out to be one of the most horrifying moments (okay I exaggerate) of my life….I got sneered at, mocked, sent caustic emails. Told I was an idiot. =)

    I also got one nice lady that answered my questions. And before I finished getting all my information from her their forum system broke and all posts were lost. By the time it came back online, my contact had disappeared, and I never had the guts to do it again.

    Carrie the Chicken


    Posted by Carrie Spencer | June 1, 2011, 6:14 am
  4. Hi Sally!

    I’ve never called someone I didn’t know for research, but I’ve called people I didn’t know very well and grilled them. I’ve cold called people before when I was in sales and had some interesting experiences.

    Since I started writing, I find myself asking people questions about their job or how things work. I’ve become much more observant.

    Having a list of questions like you suggested would be helpful if I ever have to make the call.

    Thanks for being with us again!

    Posted by jennifer tanner | June 1, 2011, 6:27 am
    • Hi Jennifer,

      I agree. Writing does make you more observant. I’ve also noticed I read things that I wouldn’t have before. Stuck in a doctor’s office with only “Field and Stream”? Well, you never know when my villain might need to buy a new rifle. 🙂


      Posted by Sally Bayless | June 1, 2011, 7:46 am
  5. Hi Sally! You have more guts than me. I do not like the phone and I cannot imagine picking it up to CALL people for research. That’s why I like to write science fiction romance – like historical authors, I don’t have to interview anyone. I just make it up and no one can argue with me!

    I did once talk to a librarian about the process for how a book is banned, and it wasn’t even for myself. But like you say, librarians aren’t the same as other people. 🙂

    Good luck on your writing!

    Posted by Kat Cantrell | June 1, 2011, 6:53 am
  6. Hi Sally,

    I haven’t called yet, but I’m thinking about it. People do love to talk about themselves. Some give away too much information. I use some of those facts to flesh out other characters. Like the hairdresser who had a client insist on eating lunch while she did her hair. Yuck!

    Mary Jo

    Posted by Mary Jo Burke | June 1, 2011, 7:18 am
    • Oh Mary Jo…lol….we once sent lunch to a hair salon, and they called us up and said there’s hair in our food! ugh! We made fresh and when we brought their food back to see what had happened, discovered it full of freshly cut hair…someone else must have tried the same thing!

      Posted by Carrie Spencer | June 1, 2011, 7:29 am
    • Hi Mary Jo,

      That does sound weird. I’d be afraid I’d chew at the wrong time and end up with my hair shorter on one side than the other!


      Posted by Sally Bayless | June 1, 2011, 7:52 am
  7. Good morning, Sally!

    We’re so happy to have you back. We’ve missed you!

    I have to say that although I can talk to a brick wall, I do tend to try to use email first. I emailed the gentleman who runs the Wortham Center in Houston to find out what the flooring looked like. I emailed a man who is a loan officer for ranch property. Both super-nice, although I’m sure they thought I was super-wacky.

    I think it’s a little harder when you’re unpublished because your research “subjects” may not take you or your work quite as seriously. However, I do try to use resources close at hand. I talked with my bio/chem friend about spinning DNA and had my sister (a nurse practitioner) read a CPR and hospital scene. And although I’ve been begging my husband to help me plot for years now (which he HATES), I recently figured out he’s much better at brainstorming the MacGyver stuff. He helped me figure out how to *almost* get my H/H out of a locked room.

    Great post, Sally!

    Posted by KelseyBrowning | June 1, 2011, 7:34 am
  8. Cold calls… I’d rather stick a fork in my eye. YOU are so brave!

    I am however willing to write to anyone, asking anything (snail mail or email). REcently did a paper on electrical backup systems for communications centers. Emailed the president of a company and rec’d fabulous information.

    But my hat is off to you and anyone who will phone a stranger for information.

    On that note… anyone needing info on horses or horse racing is more than welcome to email me!


    Posted by kc stone | June 1, 2011, 9:14 am
  9. Great article, Sally. Many writers, published and unpublished, likely struggle with this very issue. The Internet offers a wealth of information, but it’s those little tidbits that only come through personal interaction that will give our stories that extra “oomph”.

    Posted by PatriciaW | June 1, 2011, 9:15 am
  10. Hi,

    This is me, doing a test. I’ve posted a couple comments (one twice) and they never showed up.


    Posted by Sally Bayless | June 1, 2011, 10:54 am
  11. Hi Sally! Great article. I actaully made a new friend doing research for one of my books. I go to a rather large church and I heard that a woman who also attended had spent several years as an undercover vice cop – and I needed to kno more about that because of my hero. So, I pulled out the chruch directory and called her out of the blue. She was awesome – so helpful – and now we are friends because of that interview.


    Posted by Robin Covington | June 1, 2011, 11:20 am
  12. Hi Sally,

    I really enjoyed your article. I haven’t had to interview anyone in person for research yet, but you gave great tips on making the process easy and fun. Thank goodness there are tons of Cat 3 folks out there.

    And I totally believe in YOUR theory about people and their dreams :).

    Posted by Isis Rushdan | June 1, 2011, 12:30 pm
  13. Great post, Sally. I loved the conciseness of your preparation (or at least it appeared that way) for the interview. Good advice. Thanks

    Posted by Carole Brown | June 1, 2011, 12:56 pm
  14. Thanks so much, everyone, for stopping by! And a big thanks to RU for having me back. Hope everyone’s writing day tomorrow is a great one!


    Posted by Sally Bayless | June 1, 2011, 7:02 pm
  15. Hey Sally,

    Thanks for sharing your tips with us today and thanks everyone for dropping by and commenting!

    Posted by Jennifer Tanner | June 1, 2011, 7:04 pm
  16. I’m so sorry I’m late! This post is exactly what I need – I’ve shelved a couple of stories when I got to about page 35 because those stories had heroes who were FBI agents.

    I practically memorized the FBI website, protocols, organizational charts, etc. (to the point I’m probably on some kind of watch list), but I realized what I really need to do is find a real live FBI agent to interview.

    My RWA chapter has invited several people in law enforcement to speak at our chapter this fall. I’m going to print this out before that meeting – thank you so much!

    Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | June 1, 2011, 9:55 pm
  17. P.S. This post reminded me of an interview I read with a certain female mystery author I know. Her story featured a gang of yacht thieves, so she was researching yachts and their values.

    Since she lives on the coast, she went to a yacht dealer with a list of questions. They acted nervous and gave her some very strange looks – although she’d assured them her research was for a book, evidently they were worried she was really planning to steal a yacht!

    Posted by Becke Martin/Davis | June 1, 2011, 9:58 pm

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