Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Imagination is a vital tool for writers looking to produce an interesting and convincing book, but it’ll only take you so far. In addition to straight-up nonfiction, there are multiple genres of fiction that need more from their author than just a vivid imagination: historical fiction, for example, or true crime, science fiction, contemporary, etc. all require research. Sometimes, that means consulting an expert.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: surely Google has you covered? Well, partially, but there’s plenty of information that you’re only going to get from the active attentions of an expert: connected concepts, tidbits of information, and personal anecdotes that will only emerge from the unique convergence of your insight into your project and an expert’s insight into their field.The insight of a real-life expert could yield unique facts that bring your story to life.Click To Tweet
Assuming you’re willing to accept this radical piece of Luddite propaganda, you may be wondering how exactly one goes about finding these real-world intelligentsia. Well, like this…
Step one is to figure out who’s actually going to be useful to you. Sometimes this will be obvious – if you’re writing a nonfiction book about Nicolae Ceausescu and Romanian communism, you’re going to want to hunt down historians specializing in Eastern European political history or, and this’ll likely be more challenging, any resident Romanians who lived in Romania during Ceausescu’s time in office. Sometimes, however, it’ll be less clear who you should speak to.
If you’re writing a YA novel about a cult of Parisian vampires, who do you talk to? French people? Teenagers? Folklore enthusiasts? Well, the quick answer is, all of them! You can’t talk to too many people when it comes to research; indeed, writers including Pulitzer-winner Jennifer Egan often don’t know quite what it is they’re going to write about until after they’ve started researching. You’ll be surprised to find how a good conversation can spark your imagination.Sometimes, it’s consulting an expert that illuminates what your story’s really about.Click To Tweet
Still, if you need experts, you’re typically going to need particular people. Truly specialized people include academics/PhDs, scientists, industry experts, politicians, government officials, journalists, and writers. Finding these people, however, can be easier said than done. That’s why you begin with…
Now I know I was just waxing lyrical about the benefits of real-world experts over Google, and I stand by that, but Google is at least a superb way of finding those aforementioned experts. If you’re looking for academics or PhDs, Google Search, Google Scholar, and websites like Academia.edu are all superb resources; search either by name (if you know who you’re looking for already) or, more likely, by topic (Google Scholar and Academic.edu are particularly good for this, as they’ll provide scholarly articles based on your search keywords). University websites will list each faculty member, including research interests, and will provide contact details. Even if the first professor you reach out to is too busy, they’ll almost certainly be able to recommend either a colleague or one of their postgraduate students or postdocs, who’ll likely be happy to have you buy them a coffee.
Google is similarly useful for finding industry experts. Company websites and Union websites will host contact information, and HR or PR teams may be able to hook you up. Make sure you phone rather than email a generic ‘[email protected]’ email address – you’ll have the chance to explain what you’re interested in and who you’re looking for. Just remember, PR professionals and publicists may be limited in what personal information they’re allowed to divulge. The difficulty ramps considerably if you’re trying to contact someone famous and/or wildly successful.
While I’m talking about the internet, it’s worth mentioning how useful social media sites like Twitter and LinkedIn can be. If you’re an active Twitter user who already has a decent follower base, a tweet explaining that you’re looking to speak to experts in [enter topic here] can yield good results whether you’re after academics, industry experts, or whoever else, especially if you can get a few active users to retweet you.
LinkedIn, on the other hand, is excellent for finding industry experts – if, for example, you need some insider knowledge to furnish your sharp-tongued satire on corporate America, it wouldn’t hurt to send a few prospecting messages to a few marketing professionals, corporate executives, and nameless drones. You can either contact users directly (LinkedIn allows you to search by skill, employer, or connection to you, and also allows you to browse users based on the content they’ve created) or utilize the social network’s Groups feature to find whole communities of relevant workers. Here’s our post about the other ways LinkedIn can be useful for writers.
Finally, the ever-unfashionable Facebook can have its uses. A public post may suffice to draw interested parties to you or, if not, you can search for employer pages, university pages, or interest groups.
To return to the intended luddite tone of this article: I compel you all to go out into your communities to find experts. This is a particularly good option if you’re trying to find experts on a given place. If, for example, you’re trying to find out more about a town’s history, that town’s local library will likely have an archive of newspapers and records stretching back decades or even centuries.
Or, if you’re looking to learn about a historical/tourist site or a national park, you’ll find that the owning organization (whether private or public) will typically have on-staff public information officers whose job it is to point you in the right direction. Explain what it is you’d like to know more about and ask if they can recommend anyone who you can talk to.
Finally, don’t underestimate the elderly. If you’re researching local history or any conflicts in recent history, older people can be fantastic sources of experience and information. If, for example, you’re writing a harrowing WW2 drama, a trip to your local old folks’ home could result in dozens of first-hand war stories.If you’re looking for insight into historical events, don’t ignore the people who lived them.Click To Tweet
I know, I know: it’s not the 1990s anymore. Regardless, when all other options have failed, phone books can be a fantastic way of putting a phone number to a name. Many journalists swear by phone books – where the internet fails, they might just provide. Of course, they only work if you’re looking for someone over a certain age (I’m not sure any Millennial or Gen Z-er on the planet owns a landline phone), and you obviously have to know who you’re looking for before you open the phone book. If, however, you’ve already found the perfect candidate online but can’t for the life of you find anything other than their name and the city they live in, a phone book might just save the day.
An expert opinion
There are few things as illuminating and inspiring as talking to someone who’s genuinely passionate and knowledgeable about their chosen subject. The internet may win in terms of sheer quantity – it can certainly shovel page after page of text toward you – but in terms of quality, real-life experts are the people to talk to.
So get out there and find a few! Use Google if you must, or any number of social media websites, or simply pop down to your local library, college, or old folks’ home. Experts are out there, and many are receptive to coffee-based bribery.
Have conversations with experts helped you write a book? How did you reach out to them? Let me know in the comments, and for more great advice on this topic, check out Your Research Can’t Stop With The Internet – Here’s Where To Go and How To Make The Most Of Your Research Trip.