Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Sometimes, you've gotta get your hands dirty

I am a research junkie. I’m not in therapy for it, but maybe I should be.

My affliction is the result of my early years as a journalist, when I was required to research, document, and attribute every word I wrote. Though I’ve tried to carry this thoroughness into my fiction writing career, it’s not always possible to experience everything I write about. The local police take a surprisingly dim view of murder, even for research purposes.

Still, I’ve had some amazing research experiences in recent years. When I wrote a book set in the funeral industry, I phoned several local mortuaries to ask if I could visit. It was the most fun I’ve ever had with my clothes on. I got to peer inside crematoriums, see the embalming process up close and personal, and meet some fascinating people eager to show me how a hydro-aspirator worked.

More recently, I spent time at the local landfill feverishly jotting notes about environmental laws and best way to crush a mattress. Though Internet research has its place, there’s just no substitute for the sensory experience of witnessing a compactor running over a big bag of rotten meat.

I recently began researching the third book in my new romantic comedy book deal with Sourcebooks, Inc. Since the story takes place in Oregon’s wine industry, I’ve been reading books, scheduling winery tours, chatting with vineyard owners, and of course, sampling plenty of local wine.

One thing that always makes my heart feel warm and fuzzy (besides the wine) is how eager everyone is to help. From firefighters to winemakers, people are generally happy to answer questions for an author looking for a glimpse into their world.

I know this is something that makes a lot of authors nervous. Even with years of journalistic experience under my belt, I used to fret sometimes, too. Would they care that the book might never be published? Would they expect me to pay them? Would they let me perform an embalming by myself?

The answer is no, no, and sadly, no.

Whether you’re an author doing some research of your own, or just a reader who’s curious about the process, here are my top five tips for conducting in-person research.

1) Be polite, professional, and straightforward about what you’re doing.

2) Bring a notepad, something to write with, and a prepared list of questions.

3) Don’t forget to collect business cards from everyone you talk to, plus any brochures or literature you see lying around.

4) Always ask if you can drive the heavy equipment, poke the dead body, or fire the gun. They probably won’t let you, but there’s no harm in asking.

5) Remember to send a sincere thank you card or email to everyone who helps you out.

Above all, remember to be a confident professional. Even if you don’t have a book deal yet, you are still an author. Practice saying it out loud. “I am an author, and I’d like to ask you some questions about water witching.”

Now if you’ll pardon me, it’s time to go uncork some Sangiovese. What? It’s for research purposes.


K.A. Krantz said...

Yep, you just made me look up "water witching." There's my research for today. Mebbe tomorrow I'll find a divinator to teach me all about it.

Linda G. said...

I love researching, too.

One thing I might add to your list: be prepared to get a Look occasionally. As when my DH was in the hospital and I asked a nurse (after DH's major surgery) how long it would take, in general, for the staff to notice if somebody had died, and how closely, exactly, did they keep an eye on a patient's visitors. I could just see her mentally calculating how much I would score off DH's life insurance, and debating whether to call the cops.

Well. I was very quick to explain I was writing a book, but somehow she still seemed to think I was odd. Huh. Go figure. I mean, all I was thinking was, I have a scene in a hospital and this is my chance to research a few things. *shrugs*

Candyland said...

I like the way you think, Tawna. Now I'm itching to write about wine.

Jeffe Kennedy said...

KAK - I know how to do it!

What I want to know, Tawna -- *did* you poke the dead body?

Ron Estrada said...

That's my biggest hang-up. I just assume homicide detectives get about a thousand calls a day from Castle wannabees. I haven't performed an autopsy, but I have gutted deer. Feel free to ask what that feels like (and smells like). I assume people aren't much different.


KAK, I've always wanted to write a book with a character skilled at water witching. Maybe someday!

Linda G, LOL on your comments at the hospital. I'm very familiar with "the look." I got it a lot at the landfill when asking about the best ways to dispose of a body.

Candyland, even if you don't write about wine, you should probably have a glass or twelve in support of my book.

Jeff, I never poke and tell :)


Candyland said...

I will happily oblige. As long as whenever my book gets picked up, you will sing in front of a crowd in support of it:)

kah said...

I was just researching a new bottle of Riesling earlier! Maybe I'll add some firefighters to my story and go hang out with cuties at the firehouse for "research." ;)


Candyland, I'm fairly certain my singing wouldn't have a very positive effect on your book sales, unless we convinced people the singing would cease only after you'd sold the desired number of copies.

Karen Amanda, Riesling and firefighters go hand-in-hand for sure! I recommend a good Cabernet Sauvignon with cops, however.


Claire Dawn said...

I'm much more of a doer when it comes to research. I love that so many of your suggestions are active! Thanks :)