We naked apes have been telling stories to each other since the world began. The old tell stories to the young, mothers to children, friends to each other. People love to talk about themselves and their experiences.
I’ve listed three ways you can do research for your book by mining the great resource that is other people. I’m only talking about fiction—non-fiction research involves much more fact-checking and digging. Fiction doesn’t have to be true, or even realistic, to entertain.
1–Talk to your peeps
Your fellow meatspace inhabitants can provide you with all kinds of anecdotes and verifications. Does your protagonist need to know how to change out a carburetor? Know someone who does it for a living? See if they’ll sit down with you and answer some questions.
Family members and older friends who like to reminisce will probably have tons of fascinating glimpses into a vintage era. Did Uncle Harry live on a commune back in the day? Ask him about it.
Be very careful asking people about wartime experiences, surviving disasters, and other traumatic memories. They might not want to recall those things, and you don’t want to revive old nightmares. You can find plenty of info on things like WWII, the Vietnam War, or cruise ship disasters by googling and reading.
Chat with people. In the course of small talk, you might hit on something fascinating. Ask lots of questions and listen. One blogger did this and found out some really cool stuff. (But in general, don’t bother people on the Tube.)
2–Don’t forget your cyberpeeps
Join forums and follow pages devoted to your interest. I mentioned that Facebook page I follow about London; commenters there drop tons of little details. I’ve even friended a couple of them.
Be careful who you friend or contact on social media. Before Internet, I once phoned an author to ask about something in his book about drugs and psychiatry (he welcomed questions), and he turned out to be completely paranoid.
Try a website like Quora.com. Sign up and get an account–then you can ask questions, comment on other questions, etc. This link contains more info about the site. I get a regular email from them, customized to particular subjects in which I have an interest. Some of the questions are goofy as hell, but I’ve found enough good information that it’s worth the occasional junk posts.
3–Find some expert peeps
You may need to pay experts for their time. I sourced a local medical professional for Tunerville’s pivotal scene; I was already a client of hers. I scheduled an appointment and totally would have paid for it to get the information I needed, but she thought the whole book idea was cool and didn’t charge me for her expertise.
Check local universities. Subject matter experts (SMEs) abound–again, for Tunerville, I had a chat with a physics professor at my alma mater. I knew him from attending a film club he ran on campus (which I actually heard about through a coworker).
Your connections matter! So network any time you can. Talk about your work to people you meet. They might have tidbits you can use, or even know an SME who can help.
The FBI Office of Public Affairs exists specifically for SME inquiries from media professionals. This includes filmmakers, journalists, and fiction writers. I sent a registered letter asking to speak with someone for Rose’s Hostage. They put me in touch with a Special Agent in Charge (SAC–law enforcement loves acronyms) in a city near mine and he patiently answered all my questions via email.
Now that I have all this juicy peep stuff, what do I do with it?
- First, figure out what will work in your narrative and what won’t. Your auntie Myrtle’s racy story of the time she snuck into the crypt at St. August’s Church in the 1940s and made out with the assistant vicar probably won’t fit in a tight thriller about mercenaries on the high seas.
- Make sure you get permission to use the information. Auntie Myrtle might tell you about the vicar when she’s tiddly in the living room, but the thought of her indiscretions in a book could have her clutching her pearls.
- If you do get permission, change details or names that could identify people. Not everyone wants to end up on Buzzfeed* if your book goes nova.
- Buy them lunch or a drink if you can manage it, thank them for their time, offer them a copy of the book, etc.
- Some people might be happy with a mention on the acknowledgements. They can point to it in their copy and tell their friends, “I helped with this!” You can email them or ask if they’re okay with being included.
Be polite when you ask for people’s time. Work around their schedules. Keep your inquiries short so you don’t tire them out or bore them to death. You can choose to tell them your plot or only reveal certain details.
Remember, people want to help. It’s a human thing.
*Warning: stay off Buzzfeed if you’re working. It’s a huge time suck!