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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Researching Your Story

As a writer of fiction, it is my job to come up with a plot, characters, setting and all the accoutrements of a story that will hold my readers' interest. I don't know what your lives are like. But I don't have the benefit of true life experiences that would be exciting enough to captivate and amaze.

So what do I do to find interesting matter for my books? Why, research, of course.

Having the web available as a research tool is a godsend to contemporary authors. It wasn't long ago that if you needed some background detail on an unfamiliar topic, you had to either spend a day at the library, or if you were one of the select few, you could delegate the research to an assistant. Not necessary for many subjects these days. And for that, we can all be grateful.

But in my opinion, as fantastic a tool as web research is, it doesn't get you quite the level of insight or detail that you often need for a major component of your book. And getting proper info for your book's setting or characters from the web is darn near impossible.

For setting and characters, I stick to what I know. For other major story components, I like to do personal interviews. You might be surprised how many experts are willing to share their knowledge with you, if you are brave enough to ask, and organized enough to not waste their time.

I've had some real fun doing personal interviews for my two novels to date. These are just some of my interviewing experiences.

I asked a small-plane pilot if I could pick his brain about his plane and the airports from which he flies. He said, "I've been looking for a good excuse to get up in the plane. When are you free?" Not only did he give me a very information-packed half-hour lesson on small airport procedure in the flight training center, but afterward, I got a hour-long plane ride. Even got to play pilot for a few minutes. The price? Beer and pizza.

I asked a nuclear chemist if he could review a chapter or two of my WIP to see if my chemistry was plausible. He responded with an invitation for some trap shooting. We covered the chemistry over beer and burgers after an afternoon spent shooting sporting clays.

I asked an acquaintance if he would be willing to tell me about his experiences with computer technology in his work at a high-tech company. As long as I provided the beverages, he was more than willing. What started as a general discussion of computers turned into an in-depth discourse about the interior of computer chips and how they are made. That visit eventually led to very large part of The Missing Element. A number of readers have commented to me about my amazing knowledge of technology. I tell them that I just started questioning an expert and kept going until he told me something really interesting that most people don't know. And that's exactly what happened.

Fairly recently, I spent a couple hours with a friend in law enforcement discussing drug trafficking and trade in my area of the country. He gave me all the basic info I wanted, and shared the hospitality of his "man cave" garage as well. After I had the fundamentals in order, I started bouncing possible drug-related plot scenarios off him to get his opinion on their feasibility in real life. I came away with, at a minimum, a major sub-plot for my next "Beck" novel.

The above are just a few of the many interviews I have conducted (and enjoyed). My experience has been that, if you are willing to be polite and respectful, most people are willing to share their unique knowledge. Heck . . . who doesn't enjoy being an expert once in a while! I have found interviews like these to be priceless sources of otherwise virtually unobtainable information.

As an aside . . . after I do a personal interview, I go back to the web and make sure I understood my expert correctly. Once you know the right terms to look for, web resources can fill you in on even more goodies for your book.

That's it for today. Hope you are inspired to locate and approach some experts to help you out with your new fiction WIPs.

All the best!



  1. great post john! thanks for sharing.

    when i wrote my first book, i spent hours and hours researching. turned out, the info was just for my sake because i didn't include any of it in the ms!

  2. At least knowledge is never wasted! And there's always that next WIP....

    Thanks for your comment, Amie.

  3. excellent post! I hate the advice to 'write what you know.' I have never experienced what I write about! It's all about the research.

  4. To each her own, Tamara. Thanks for your comment! John

  5. Good post, John. Just today I thought how valuable the Internet is for maps. My character was driving in an area I was a little unfamiliar with, and the Google map helped me find "her" way. So there can be lots of ways to do some good research such as you have done with interviews of people in the know.

  6. I haven't used Google maps in book research before. But it is a great idea. Thanks Linda.