So you’re writing fiction about something fun. Awesome. Maybe your main character is a professional skydiver who also owns a bakery, or your villain is a corrupt archeologist falsifying artifacts. Maybe you’re writing a BDSM book. Whatever it is, you’re super jazzed, so you dive into the story.
…And promptly realize you know nothing about the subject matter and have no idea what you’re doing.
Where do you start? How do you get the research you need? What if you need to talk to people?
I know your pain. I’m not good at parties. While I’ve gotten better over the years, my MO is to hang out in a corner and only talk to strangers if they talk to me first.
Research is still a challenge for me, but I’ve learned some tricks that make it easier.
What to Do If You’re Extremely Shy
If you’re an all-out shy person and talking to people in person is a big fat NOPE NOPE NOPE in your book, you still have great options, and they actually make up most of this post. Even for more extroverted people, these are helpful for kick-starting your research journey.
Start with Low-hanging Fruit
1. Use Online Research to Build a Foundation
I know it sounds obvious, but this is a solid place to start. If you’ve got the internet, you’ve got gold. The goal is to get acquainted with your topic well enough to form a foundation of knowledge. This means scouring Wikipedia, lurking on message boards, and skimming relevant websites. For example, you might find an archeology professor’s private website about digging up fossils or a local sky diving teacher’s page. You will likely find resources that will become your go-to sites if you need to refresh your memory about something while you’re writing.
2. Use Books to Dig Deeper
It’s another obvious one, but books are GREAT.
Once you have your foundation of knowledge, you’ll know where to focus your research when looking for books about more specific topics. However, there are shortcuts too. Some books are specifically geared toward writing in certain genres. For example, there are books on forensic science for people writing crime novels. There are also writer’s guides to writing in specific historical time periods. There is SO MUCH out there.
Where to Get Books
Shut up, Loki.
New bookstores and online book shopping can get expensive, but buying used is a great option if you need to stock up on a bunch of material at once.
Libraries are awesome because they’re free, and they have librarians. I know, I know, human interaction. But you can literally say, “What are your best books on the Amazon rainforest?” and they’ll be happy to point out some titles before leaving you alone. Helping people is literally their job, and most people don’t take advantage of them. They want to help you find what you’re looking for.
If your public library has slim pickins, university library collections are huge. You probably won’t be able to borrow materials if you’re not associated with the school, but it’s a good spot for initial information gathering. And again, the librarians there can be super helpful.
3. Use Online Tutorials/Classes and Podcasts to Immerse Yourself
Look into iTunesU, Coursera, or SkillShare (though I’ve heard weird things about how SkillShare pays their teachers, FYI). Podcasts are helpful too. These resources cover a huge number of topics, and are a good alternative to traditional book research if that’s not getting you very far. You can really immerse yourself in the topic and absorb things passively.
4. Watch Documentaries! I heard that tip from Sonali Dev on a writer’s panel, and it’s actually really fucking genius. The experts have distilled the information for you in an easy-to-watch format, so documentaries are a great resource for getting a basic foundation of knowledge.
Step up the Human Interaction a Bit
If you really dig that archeology professor’s website, and she seems like she would be an amazing resource, e-mail her. Here is a script to get you started:
Hello Dr. Bloopy Bloop,
My name is Blardy Blargh, and I came across your website [or social media page] while I was researching dinosaur fossils for my novel. Your site was very helpful, but I would love to pick your brain about this topic further via e-mail. If you’re available, please let me know. Thank you for your time.
If you’re contacting a skydiving instructor, then it might go something like this:
Hello Mr. Sky McSkydivy,
My name is Blardy Blargh, and I came across your website [or social media page] while I was researching skydiving for my novel. My main character is a skydiver, so I really want to get the details right. I would love to pick your brain about what you do. If you’re available, please let me know. Thank you for your time.
2. Social Media
Facebook Groups. There are tons of writing groups on Facebook, and these people love to help other writers. Tell them what you’re researching, and they’re bound to throw resources at you. Seriously, people in these groups LOVE to answer questions. If you ask, “What’s that crispy breakfast meat made of pork?” You’ll get at least fifteen people telling you “Bacon!” These people are great. They want to help.
There are also tons of interest-based groups on Facebook. For example, if you want to learn about what it’s like to be a graphic designer, join a graphic designer group; lurk there to get a sense of the place, and then submit a post about how you’d like to message/e-mail with someone to get more information for your book.
Twitter. Twitter is pretty much the social media platform for writers. If you can build a solid network of other writers, you can tweet to your followers, asking if they know any archeologists or skydivers you can interview.
You can also start following accounts related to archeology (or whatever topic you’re researching). DO NOT, I REPEAT, DO NOT, hit them up for information immediately, especially via DM. No one likes being approached by randoms on Twitter.
If you choose not to heed this advice, at least be courteous. For example, “@superstararcheologist Your work on fossils is amazing. I’d love to discuss your research for a novel I’m working on.”
The more effective method is slow and steady. Pick a few accounts of people who seem friendly and knowledgeable, but don’t go for anyone too famous. You want someone approachable. Follow them for a little while and then cultivate meaningful interactions with them. If they share a particularly insightful article, comment on it. You’re trying to develop a relationship, not hit it and quit it. Once they have an idea of who you are, then you can tweet at them (avoid unsolicited DMs if possible) and ask them if they’re open to interviews for novel research.
Reddit. There are some great groups on here. Just follow these standard group/message board rules: lurk for a little bit to get a sense of tone, ask your question nicely, and thank them for their time; abort if things randomly get combative.
Not everyone has the luxury to do this, but if you’re able, go to museums related to your topic and visit the setting of your book (if based in reality). These experiences are invaluable. Plus, you can still wander around without having to talk to anyone.
If You’re Awkward, But Open to Talking to People
If you’re awkward, but are still willing to talk to people in-person, these are some additional options.
1. Friends and Family
If you’re not lucky enough to have an archeologist or skydiver in your family or friends group, ask if they know someone who is (or if they know someone who knows someone). It’s less scary if a mutual third party introduces you. Get your loved ones to do your dirty work.
2. Branching out from Social Media
Have you already developed social media bonds with people in your field of interest? Great! Ask if they would be willing to video chat or talk on the phone. If you decide to meet in person, pick a neutral location like a coffee shop.
Conducting Your Interviews
The number one thing to remember when you’re reaching out to someone for research:
While your interviewee is doing you a favor, they wouldn’t be doing it if they didn’t want to. They will likely be excited that you picked them. Fiction writing is a mysterious, thrilling odyssey, and you’re making them feel important.
If an interview is an onus, they won’t agree to do it. It’s that simple. Soak up their knowledge and try to enjoy it—you’re learning things that will help you. Also, the more of these interviews you do, the more comfortable you’ll get.
Regardless of interview method (e-mail, video chat, or in-person), do these things:
- Prepare broad questions, but base them on your initial research. It’s unhelpful to both of you if you roll up into the interview and say, “So, tell me about archeology.”
- Prepare more detailed questions about any nitty gritty details that have been bugging you (e.g., why would a parachute fail when you’re skydiving?).
- For video chats or in-person interviews, ask if you can record the session so that you can refer back to it later without having to worry about obsessive note-taking.
- Don’t be afraid to ask if they’re OK with follow-up interviews or e-mails. Don’t abuse this privilege, though.
- Be courteous and them a thank-you e-mail a day or two afterward.
- If they are instrumental in making your book come to life, consider thanking them in your acknowledgements.
It’s daunting as hell, but you can do it!