Sunday, 1 February 2009

Asking the right questions.





What do these topics have in common?

1. Premature babies
2. Exotic carpets
3. The lifecycle of wolves
4. Native American superstitions
5. Inner workings of fairground carousels
6. Anglo Saxon burial methods


The answer is nothing, but they’re all subjects I’ve had to research for my fiction. Not for the same book, I might add (hmm..maybe that’s where I’ve gone wrong) but they all had two things in common: they were vital to the story and I knew zilch about them. Researching your novel can be a daunting business for the unpublished. First of all, you have to work out how to introduce yourself. Do you start your query with: ‘I’m writing a novel about…’ and hope that’s enough? Or do you give them a full CV? Or, do you just blur the facts a bit, hinting they’ll be seeing you on next year’s Booker shortlist?
You may think this is easier for published writers (was that the sound of hollow laughter?) because you can include a sparkling Amazon link to your last book. But this might bring its own problems. What if they don’t like the cover? What if their sister did it for her book group and ‘didn’t much care for it’?
The good news is that the vast majority of the time, people are hugely flattered that you, someone brave enough to actually write a book, wants some of their specialist knowledge. If you mix in Strictly Writing type circles, you might start imagining everyone is at this novel business. The fact is that most people ‘out there’ are actually quite impressed and interested. I’ve never had anything but positive responses from individuals or organisations I’ve approached for help.

If you are nervous about research, here are some tips:
- Always be professional in your approach. Be clear about the information you’re seeking, so the person in question knows whether they can help or have to re-direct you elsewhere.
- Try a little gentle bribery. ‘Obviously I will give you a mention in the acknowledgements for your helpful input,’ goes down a treat.
- If someone does seem unhelpful, remain polite and gently prompt them to suggest another individual or organisation they think would be more suitable.
- The internet is a goldmine of information, but make sure you get your facts from decent sources. There are lots of dodgy sites masquerading as information portals, so always have a proper look around before you lift a fact, and better still: double check it. After all, you don’t want Mr Nitpicky Nerdypants of Norwich cluttering up your Amazon reviews with his insistence that fish fingers and Smiley Faces didn’t exist in The American Wild West.

If you can get beyond a certain feeling that you’re a fraud, research can be one of the most enjoyable bits of writing fiction. Anyway, I’m off to work on my new novel. It’s about a premature wolf cub in Anglo Saxon Britain, which gets reincarnated as a modern day carpet salesman with a thing for fairgrounds.
I think it has potential, don’t you?

13 comments:

Geraldine Ryan said...

Takes place in Norwich, does it, Caroline? I have to say how much I admire your bravery at picking up the phone to ask people things. I'd rather die! That's why I write shorts so I can make it all up.

CarolineG said...

Geri,
That's what email was invented for :-)
Haven't set anything in Norwich, as it happens...just liked the alliterative quality of the name!

Samantha Tonge said...

Very funny post, Caroline!

I usually use the internet and have been caught out a few times. But i have to say people i have approached on line have always been more than helpful.

x

Susie Nott-Bower said...

I had to approach several cosmetic surgeons before finding one kind enough to check the facts in my novel. He asked me how I knew so much about the subject, and I had
to tell him that I'd got most of it from 'Cosmetic Surgery For Dummies' *blush*
Susiex

Luisa said...

Brilliant post! I've often wondered how people approach this.

But I'm slightly disappointed that fish fingers and Smiley Faces didn’t exist in The American Wild West.

CarolineG said...

Yes, it's gutting, isn't it?

Thanks for your comments, Sam, Suzy and Luisa.

For some reason I find it much much easier to do research than to chase up submissions or approach agents. I think it's probably because my job involves tons of research and there's a real thrill to be had in hunting elusive facts!

Emily Gale said...

This is really helpful (and amusing!), thanks Caroline.

Liane said...

Hee hee. I know. I called Buckingham Palace - I think they thought I was some kind of nut. I enjoyed it, though. And I had to call a gun club who were a bit suspicious of my questions. The best was an expert on rabbits who I found on the internet. She was a dream and obviously I thanked her in the acknowledgments of my book. It was such a treat having an expert on hand.

CarolineG said...

Thanks, both.
And Liane, so glad you didn;t get muddled and start asking the Queen's Press Officer questions about rabbits. Could have been most embarrassing...

Gillian McDade said...

Great points Caroline! Amusing too!

Gillian McDade said...

Great points Caroline! Amusing too!

Kirsty said...

Mr Nitpicky Nerdypants of Norwich -Love it!
I had to write features as part of an MA and was stunned by how freely people would give their time and expertise to me. Nowhere near as scary as thinking about it had been. As research for my novel I had a lovely encounter with our local firemen, who were both delightful and delighted to help. Go for it girls.

CarolineG said...

I'm thinking now that I really MUST write something about the fire service.....