When it comes to research, I reckon most writers are separated by their desired primary sources by only one or two degrees. Google is an efficient – and frankly convenient – source when a writer is familiarising themselves with a topic or fact checking, but it’s not so great when it comes to the nuanced details of multifaceted topics like police procedure (for example). Let’s be honest, no blog post or web article is going to beat a sitting down with a real live source. (And please be kind. Shout them a coffee.)
First person accounts will likely contain the fine details required to make your scene feel richer and more authentic. Those details can be broken into sensory descriptions (touch, smell, sound, sight and taste) as well as procedures and processes. Google is a great way to get an overall understanding of any subject, but an interview with a primary source will provide the specific details you need to established an authoritative voice and build a believable scene.
I depended heavily on Google during the first draft of my manuscript. Here’s why:
- Research can be a huge time suck. When you’re in the early days of a manuscript, the finish line is so far away that there is no way to tell if your project will become anything beyond a file on your laptop. So, why spend three hours researching which season Desquamate (strand of Eucalyptus) trees shed their bark? Just get on with the writing. Which leads me too….
- Research isn’t writing. Research is sneaky and seductive because it feels oh so productive. You can fool yourself into thinking you’ve made headway on a chapter, when really you’ve only nutted out a hundred words.
During the first draft, I decided to follow Stephen King’s advice, the story must always come first. Once you get something down on the page, you can always go back and edit later.
For the past three years, I’ve been working on a manuscript that features a protagonist with a niche job (in Australia, only 200 people work in this field) and another character who is a detective on the cusp of retiring. Not only did I need to do research on current day cop procedures, but I needed to familiarise myself with the processes that existed back in the 70s and 80s prior to computers. I got lucky. By talking about my project (a key factor in the finding of sources!) I was able to make contact with two primary sources who were willing to sit down and have a cuppa with me.
I made contact with these sources both directly and indirectly. One was attending the same conference as me, we got talking, and eventually exchanged emails. At a separate event, I started speaking with an emerging YA author. While discussing our respective projects, I mentioned that I was looking for a currently servicing officer. ‘I know someone you can speak to!’ Time passed, emails were exchanged, coffee was drunk and my note pad was filled with various scribbles.
These two sources were invaluable. No scrolling through webpages or scanning pdf report for the singular sound bite I was chasing. I got to go straight to the source. My specific questions got answered quickly and concisely, and sometimes, my sources’ clarifications and suggestions caused me to completely rewrite a scene (for the better).
Now, obviously primary sources are a superb form of research. The tricky thing though, can be finding them. Time continued to pass, and I still hadn’t managed to make a contact in my protagonist’s niche field. My cheeks burned with embarrassment as I cold called departments explaining that I was writing a novel and that I wanted to speak with someone within this particular field. Now, I did get some confusing/amusing rebuttals to this request, but I didn’t get any closer to make a contact in the industry. Time passed. Phone calls were left unanswered, emails ignored, and I was left to drink coffee by myself. In front of my laptop. Doomed forever to internet research.
THEN! (Oh, blessed then!)
Then, one day, while visiting a friend, I mentioned my ill-luck at contacting someone in this niche field.
‘I know someone who does that.’ She said.
Within five minutes, she’d PM her mate on Stalkbook. A few days later, I had a phone number, an address and an interview time with TWO people who worked in this field. (My ambiguity around this job probably sounds quite scandalous. It’s not. But it is a sensitive topic so…)
Now, I had spoken about my book to this particular friend with the nifty contact many times. But, I had never said the magic words ‘I am looking for someone who works in X.’ That was the sentence that changed everything.
So, I guess the whole point of this blog is to share a slice of my experience with you. YOU may know that you are looking for someone who works in ‘X’ and YOU may think its exceedingly obvious that you’re looking for a contact in that field, but unless you say the magic words, ‘I am looking for someone who works in X’, then the PEOPLE around you cannot help you.
Sometime you needed to be blatant.
And hey, you never know. Maybe you’ll get lucky and someone in your immediate circle of contacts will have the phone number of the exact person you are looking for. Then, one day, you will sit down and shout your new chum a coffee; they’ll answer question and you’ll take notes in the spiffy new journal you bought just for the occasion.
You’ll make real progress.
Your scene will improve, becoming richer and more authentic.
And the book will get better. So much better.
Image bw 80s 1 by Tim Caynes